Judicial reforms recommended, could face uphill battle

By: - August 19, 2022 3:50 am

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A new report recommends sweeping changes to the justice system in Ohio, with hopes of rectifying systemic issues and stemming wrongful convictions.

But the changes still need to have legislative support before they can come to fruition. 

The Ohio Supreme Court put together the Task Force on Conviction Integrity and Postconviction Review, which spent the last three years hearing from court experts and judicial advocates on how the process of abating conviction errors and the mechanism for those trying to prove their innocence can be improved.

“These reforms will, I believe, advance the post-conviction system in Ohio lightyears from where we are in helping rid the system of these wrongful convictions,” said Ohio Supreme Court Justice Michael Donnelly, who was a member of the task force.

The recommendation spanned three categories: rule and statutory changes, education and training, and conviction review models.

Revised code changes promoted in the report, which would need legislative approval, included amending the law regarding review of new evidence or arguments after an individual has been convicted of a crime. The task force wants to give defendants more time to petition the court for a review of their conviction, and make it easier for certain individuals to have an attorney appointed to them.

New changes, if approved, would task the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission with collection of “more detailed data on felony criminal appeals…and post-conviction-relief proceedings” as well.

Prosecutors would also be required to be accountable, and to “take specific actions when they learn of previously undisclosed, credible and material evidence that creates a reasonable likelihood that the defendant is not guilty,” according to the report.

“Finality should never trump the truth,” Donnelly said of the changes recommended in the report.

The General Assembly was also asked in the report to create an “Innocence Inquiry Commission” which would act as an “independent, neutral, investigatory” entity, made up of “independent, nonpartisan professionals who are insulated from political pressure.”

Lucas County Judge Gene Zmuda served as the chair of the task force, and said the magnitude of the recommendations made by the task force “reflects the scope of what the task force was set to do.”

“If there’s anything (legal professionals) are charged with, it’s to maintain the integrity of the process,” Zmuda said. “Any improvement to the dispensing of justice — timely, accurately and constitutionally — improves it.”

In the report, the task force acknowledges that, despite the high-level personnel on the task force, the recommendations stand as just that.

“The task force itself has no authority or power to implement any of its recommendations,” the report states. “Instead, implementing the recommendations requires the input and agreement of entities like the supreme court and the General Assembly.”

Implementation my not be a smooth journey based on other legislative measures that have been attempted. 

“Our history with criminal justice reforms has not been very fruitful,” said Michael Benza, a senior instructor of law at Case Western Reserve University.

Benza said the task force report is “a great first step towards making Ohio’s post-trial review process do what we’ve always wanted it to do,” including creating a transparent process and one that helps those possibly wrongly convicted of crimes over the prosecutors in the cases.

But Benza said other measures to attempt to bring systemic change to the justice system have seen road blocks, or a simple lack of action, which brings hesitation about the potential for quick change based on the post-conviction task force report.

He brought up a death penalty task force that came up with recommendations, which have yet to see the finish line. A bill that seeks to abolish the death penalty and revise juror challenge numbers, which has bipartisan co-sponsors, has been re-referred twice to Ohio House committees since being reduced in March 2021.

The bill has seen pushback from the Ohio Prosecuting Attorney Association, the executive director of which said ending the death penalty would let offenders off the hook.

Benza also said prosecutors and others in the judiciary have taken issue with a movement to collect sentencing data statewide, in order to find out typical sentences for crimes in Ohio.

“Prosecutors have a much stronger lobby than those who have been accused of committing crimes,” Benza said.

Even with differing opinions on how quickly the measures could be put in place, Zmuda said he was encouraged by the bipartisan support the postconviction task force, and Donnelly is hopeful that the momentum of the task force will carry to the General Assembly when they return to work in the fall. 

“We can’t let these great recommendations go into a drawer somewhere,” Donnelly said. “I think they just make common sense.”

Follow OCJ Reporter Susan Tebben on Twitter.

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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.

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