Ohio Supreme Court grants new hearing for man claiming DNA excludes him

By: - November 11, 2022 4:55 am

“Gavel,” a sculpture by Andrew F. Scott, outside the Supreme Court of Ohio. Credit: Sam Howzit / Creative Commons.

A Pickaway County man will get a hearing to decide if he should get a new trial based on DNA evidence he said was kept from him at his original trial.

In a Thursday ruling, the Ohio Supreme Court said Martin Hatton will return to Pickaway County Common Pleas Court, after he successfully argued that DNA evidence could exclude him from being one of two rapists in a 1997 case, for which he received a 39-year prison sentence.

Hatton requested the hearing after a DNA expert’s memo sent to the prosecutor’s office showed his DNA wasn’t on a sample taken from the rape victim.

Hatton was identified as one of two men who went to a home and held a 17-year-old at knifepoint in her bedroom. The other man, Ricky Dunn, told police he’d come to the house with Hatton, but the teenager said she couldn’t identify who had raped her in one part of the crimes committed at the house.

When Hatton went to trial, a criminalist with the City of Columbus Crime Lab testified that she could “neither exclude nor include anybody” based on mixed DNA samples. A forensic expert testifying on behalf of Hatton said a genetic marker was missing from the sample, meaning Hatton’s DNA wasn’t there.

A prosecutor at the time denied the presence of anyone else in the house, rejecting the argument that anyone else was involved.

But amid a 1998 appeal, Hatton’s attorney received a memo from the criminalist confirming the genetic marker was not present, which Hatton said “was the first and only acknowledgement in the record by a witness for the state that (the genetic marker) indicated someone other than Hatton or Dunn contributed male DNA to the mixed sample.”

Still, an appeals court denied Hatton’s request for a new hearing, resulting in an appeal to the state’s highest court.

The Ohio Supreme Court found that the trial court “abused its discretion” by overlooking supporting documents and denying a motion for a new trial.

“Hatton supported his motion … with uncontradicted evidence that, on its face, demonstrates that he was unavoidably prevented from discovering the (criminalist’s) memo — the primary evidence upon which he seeks to base his motion for a new trial — within the time for filing a motion for a new trial,” Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote for the court.

The supreme court found that the memo “illuminated a substantial hole in the state’s theory of its case against Hatton.”

The court did not take a position on whether or not Hatton would be successful in a new trial, just that he had a right to a new hearing.

Justice Michael Donnelly took the time to write separately, though he agreed with the ruling to give Hatton a new trial. He wrote separately to chastise Ohio courts, which he said should be holding hearings where evidence “potentially undermines the theory of guilt that was used to convict” an individual.

“But Ohio courts are not doing this,” Donnelly wrote.

Donnelly continued on to say that “justice would also be better served” if independent commissions were involved in the post-conviction process, with the power to “investigate claims of actual innocence and assess whether a viable claim of innocence has been established.”

He also pushed the idea that trial judges should not be the same judge who presides over post-conviction claims, as well as reform of the state’s entire post-conviction review process.

“Judges are not exempt from the normal human tendency to interpret new evidence in a way that confirms one’s already existing beliefs – known as confirmation bias,” Donnelly wrote. “…Confirmation bias is not the same as judicial bias, but it poisons judicial decision-making all the same.”

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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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