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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

State of Ohio v. Clarence D. Roberts , Case no. 2011-1882
Fifth District Court of Appeals (Guernsey County)

D.W. v. T.L., Case no. 2011-1979
Twelfth District Court of Appeals (Clinton County)

Larry Hewitt v. The L.E. Myers Co. et al., Case no. 2011-2013
Eighth District Court of Appeals (Cuyahoga County)

State of Ohio v. Van Williams, Case no. 2011-2094
Eighth District Court of Appeals (Cuyahoga County)

Does 2010 Law Require Police, Crime Labs to Preserve Biological Evidence from Pre-2010 Court Cases?

Or Does New Law Apply Only to Evidence Collected After It Was Enacted?

State of Ohio v. Clarence D. Roberts , Case no. 2011-1882
Fifth District Court of Appeals (Guernsey County)

ISSUE: Section 2933.82 of the Ohio Revised Code, which was enacted by the General Assembly in 2010 and became effective on July 6 of that year, requires that Ohio law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, courts and crime laboratories that obtain biological evidence while investigating specified crimes including murder and rape must preserve that evidence for a specified period of time beyond the trial of a defendant charged with those crimes. The statute also requires that, on request, governmental entities that possess biological evidence from a criminal case must provide the defendant with an inventory of all such evidence in their possession.

In this case, the Supreme Court is asked to decide whether the requirements of R.C. 2933.82 apply only to biological evidence collected on or after July 6, 2010, or if those provisions also apply to biological evidence from prior crimes that was in the possession of governmental entities on the date the new law took effect.

BACKGROUND: Clarence Roberts was convicted of aggravated murder and aggravated robbery in 1997 and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  Following the enactment of R.C. 2933.82 in 2010, Roberts filed a motion asking the Guernsey County Court of Common Pleas to issue an order requiring the preservation of any biological evidence from his case that was still in the possession of local authorities, and requiring them to provide him with an inventory of that evidence.

The trial court denied Roberts’ motion.  He appealed that ruling, arguing that under the newly enacted provisions of R.C. 2933.82, he was legally entitled to preservation of any surviving biological evidence from his case and to an inventory of all evidentiary items still in the possession of the police, prosecutor or courts.

The Fifth District Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s action.  In its decision, the court of appeals held that because new laws are presumed to be prospective only (i.e., to apply only to events that take place after the effective date of the law) unless the legislature clearly indicates an intention to make them retroactive, and the legislature made no such indication in enacting R.C. 2933.82, the evidence preservation and inventory requirements imposed by the new law applied only to evidence obtained by a government entity on or after July 6, 2010.

Roberts sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the Fifth District’s decision.

Attorneys for Roberts point to multiple references in R.C. 2933.82 to the preservation of evidence that a government entity “possesses,” and argue that the plain meaning of that language is that the preservation requirements applies not only to evidence that “comes into the possession” of an agency after the effective date of the new law, but also to evidence that police or other agencies already “possessed” on the date the new law took effect.

In an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief supporting Roberts’ position, attorneys for the Innocence Project assert that the sponsors and proponents of the 2010 legislation containing the disputed provision made it clear that their intention was not merely to preserve biological evidence in future cases, but also to prevent the destruction of surviving evidence in cases that were years or even decades old, so that evidence could be tested using advanced DNA testing techniques that were not available at the time a defendant was convicted. They contend that the Fifth District’s ruling is contrary to two major purposes for which the law was enacted, which they say were to enable current inmates who claim they were innocent to definitively prove or disprove such claims via DNA tests, and to enable police to identify and apprehend the actual perpetrators of past crimes for which the wrong person was convicted.

The state, represented by attorneys from the Guernsey County prosecutor’s office, argues that R.C. 1.48 and prior Supreme Court decisions make it clear that “a statute is presumed to be prospective in its operation unless expressly made retroactive.”  They assert that comments made  by one or a group of legislators during debate over a bill do not constitute an expression of legislative intent to make that legislation retroactive, which they say may only be shown through a clear statement of such intent in the actual language of the statute.

Because no such statement is included in R.C. 2933.82, and because retroactive application of the new law’s evidence preservation and retention requirements to pre-2010 cases would impose new burdens on police and other government agencies that did not exist prior to July 6, 2010, they urge the court to affirm the Fifth District’s conclusion that R.C. 2933.82 applies only to evidence obtained by police and other government agencies on or after the effective date of the new law.

Representing Clarence Roberts: Kristopher A. Haines, 614.466.5394

Representing the state and Guernsey County prosecutor’s office: Daniel G. Padden, 740.439.2082

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Did Juvenile Court Abuse Its Discretion In Granting Petition To Change Child’s Surname from Mother’s to Father’s Last Name?

Where Parents Unmarried, Mother is Residential Parent

D.W. v. T.L., Case no. 2011-1979
Twelfth District Court of Appeals (Clinton County)

ISSUE:  Was it an abuse of discretion for a juvenile court to grant a petition changing a child’s surname from the last name of his mother, who is his residential parent, to the last name of his father, who has shared parenting status?

BACKGROUND: This case involves a dispute between two unmarried people who share parenting of their child over which of their last names should be the child’s legal name.

The child’s father, identified as D.W., filed suit in the Clinton County Juvenile Court in 2009 to establish his legal status as the child’s father and seek a court order under which he would share parenting of the child with the  child’s mother, identified in court documents as T.L.  The parties agreed that the mother would remain the child’s residential parent with a specified visitation schedule for the father. They also agreed on child support to be paid by the father and other issues. They could not agree, however, on which of their surnames would be the child’s legal last name.

The father entered a motion in the paternity proceeding asking the juvenile court to change the child’s legal last name from that of his mother, which had been recorded on his birth certificate and by which he had been identified for the first three years of his life, to the last name of the father.  At a hearing before a magistrate that was limited to the name-change issue, both parents testified regarding why they believed the child should bear their respective last names.

The magistrate ruled that it was in the child’s best interest to grant the requested name change.  The mother filed objections to the magistrate’s decision. A juvenile court judge reviewed and affirmed the magistrate’s ruling, and entered an order changing the child’s legal last name to that of the father.  The mother appealed that ruling to the Twelfth District Court of Appeals, which found that the juvenile court had not abused its discretion in arriving at its decision, and therefore that decision must be upheld.

The mother sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the Twelfth District’s decision.

Attorneys for the mother argue that the juvenile court abused its discretion in affirming the magistrate’s ruling, because the testimony presented by the father during the magistrate’s hearing did not make an affirmative showing that the requested name change was in the child’s best interest, but merely indicated the father’s strong desire that his son should bear his name.  They point to two prior Supreme Court decisions, Bobo v. Jewell (1988) and In re Willhite (1999), in which they say this court has overruled trial court decisions that approved name changes when the lower court based its ruling solely on a discriminatory cultural bias that favors a child bearing the father’s surname rather than the mother’s.

They assert that the trial court record in this case reflects decisions by the magistrate and reviewing juvenile judge that gave excessive weight to the father’s tradition-based claims regarding the sharing of a surname by a father and son, and gave little or no weight to the mother’s arguments that her son would be negatively affected by having his last name changed from the only one he had known and by not sharing the same last name as the residential parent and sibling with whom he primarily resides.  They urge the court to vacate the name-change order in this case on the basis that the juvenile court’s action was based on gender-based discrimination rather than the required standard of the child’s best interest.

Attorneys for the father respond that both the magistrate’s decision and the juvenile court opinion affirming that decision specifically addressed the gender-neutral factors identified in the Bobo decision, and concluded that granting the requested name change was in the child’s best interest.  They dispute the mother’s assertion that Willhite created a “bright line” rule that preference must be given to naming a child after its residential parent, and argue that the Twelfth District correctly found that the record of the juvenile court’s proceedings did not demonstrate an abuse of discretion, and therefore the lower court’s decision should not be disturbed on appeal.

Representing T.L., mother of L.W.: Ginger S. Bock, 513.791.4560

Representing D.W., father of L.W.: Neal W. Duiker, 513.398.1910

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Did Foreman’s Advice That Electrical Worker Didn’t Need Gloves Constitute ‘Removal of Equipment Safety Guard’?

Under State Law That Allows Injured Worker To Sue for ‘Intentional Workplace Tort’

Larry Hewitt v. The L.E. Myers Co. et al., Case no. 2011-2013
Eighth District Court of Appeals (Cuyahoga County)

ISSUE:  When  a work crew foreman tells an apprentice electrical lineman that he won’t need rubber gloves to perform an assigned task, and the apprentice subsequently suffers injuries that could have been prevented by the use of rubber gloves, do those facts invoke a provision of state law that allows an injured worker to sue his or her employer for an “intentional tort” if the employer “deliberately removed an equipment safety guard?”

BACKGROUND: When Ohio enacted its  worker’s compensation statutes in the early 20th century,  the General Assembly created a “no fault” system in which employees who are injured in the course of their employment generally give up the right to sue their employers for damages based on claims of unsafe work conditions in exchange for the creation of a state-administered fund, paid for by employers, from which workers may quickly recover medical expenses and lost wages arising from work-related injuries without going to court, regardless of who was responsible for the injury.

Beginning in the 1980s, however, a line of Supreme Court decisions held that in certain cases where an injured worker could show that his injuries arose from a workplace hazard or condition that was known to his employer and was so dangerous that it was “substantially certain to cause injury,” the worker could not only receive workers’ compensation benefits, but could also seek civil damages from the employer in court by filing a “workplace intentional tort” lawsuit.

In 2004, as part of a “tort reform” bill, the legislature amended the intentional tort statute, R.C. 2745.01, to state that an employer cannot be held liable to an employee for an alleged intentional workplace tort “unless the plaintiff proves that the employer committed the tortious act with the intent to injure another ...” The amended statute goes on to state that an employer’s “deliberate removal of an equipment safety guard” creates a rebuttable presumption that the employer acted with intent to injure another, and therefore may be subject to an intentional tort claim.

In this case, Larry Hewitt, an apprentice electrical lineman, was injured while working on a crew employed by the L.E. Myers Company to replace overhead electric lines along a rural road.  Although Hewitt had been issued rubber safety gloves and sleeves to protect against electric shock if he should come in contact with a “live” wire, and had that equipment with him at the job site, Hewitt and other workers testified that Hewittt was told by a foreman on the day of his injury that it was unnecessary for him to wear gloves or sleeves while he was tying in a length of  deenergized  wire to other deenergized wires. While performing that task 35 feet above then ground, Hewitt turned to respond to a safety warning shouted to him from below, and in doing so accidentally caused a length of deenergized wire he was holding in one hand to come into contact with a live wire several feet away, causing an electrical shock to pass through him and burn his hand, arm and shoulder.

Hewitt filed a workers’ compensation claim, which was granted, and also filed an intentional tort lawsuit against Myers.  In his complaint, Hewitt alleged among other claims that the foreman’s directive that he did not need to use protective gloves or sleeves while performing the task that resulted in his injury amounted to the “deliberate removal of an equipment safety guard,” and thus created a presumption under R.C. 2745.01(C) that Myers had acted with intent to cause his injury.

At trial, after Hewitt had presented his evidence to a jury, and without calling any witnesses of its own, Myers moved the court to issue a directed verdict in its favor on all claims.  The court issued a directed verdict dismissing two of Hewitt’s claims, but denied a directed verdict on the claim that his injury resulted from Myers removal of a safety guard.  Myers rested without presenting any witnesses and the case went to the jury, which returned a verdict in favor of Hewitt and awarded him damages totaling $597,785.  Myers entered a motion asking the trial judge to set aside the jury’s verdict and award of damages as not supported by the evidence. The judge denied that motion and entered judgment in favor of Hewitt.

Myers appealed to the Eighth District Court of Appeals, which affirmed the action of the trial court. Myers then sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the Eight District’s decision.

Attorneys for Myers assert that the evidence presented at trial does not support the jury’s verdict or the Eighth District’s finding that the action of the foreman in this case constituted the “deliberate removal of an equipment safety guard.”  They argue that in the context of a workers’ compensation statute, the phrase “equipment safety guard” refers only to an integral part or attachment to a piece of workplace equipment that is designed to prevent that equipment from causing injury to its operator.  They contend that the statutory language  cannot reasonably be read to include gloves or other protective clothing worn by a worker. They also contend that, even if Hewitt’s foreman did tell him that he didn’t need to wear rubber gloves or sleeves, that action did not constitute the “deliberate removal” by Myers of a safety device because the protective gloves remained available to Hewitt at the work site and he was free to use them if he chose to do so.

Multiple amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs supporting the position of Myers have been submitted by organizations including the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Businesses, Ohio Insurance Institute, American Insurance Association and the Ohio Association of Civil Trial Attorneys.

Attorneys for Hewitt argue that the narrow definition of “equipment safety guard” proposed by Myers would prevent an injured worker from pursuing an intentional tort claim against an employer who deliberately removed the safety masks from welders’ helmets, or removed protective guard rails from high-level scaffolding, simply because those types of “safety guards” are not physically attached to a piece of industrial equipment. They assert that the legislature did not define what constitutes a “safety guard” within the intentional tort statute in order to allow that determination to be made by a judge or jury based on the specific facts of individual cases.

In this case, they argue, the trial court and Eighth District reasonably determined that protective rubber gloves and sleeves are “safety guards” designed to prevent injuries to those who work around electric power transmission equipment, and that in light of Hewitt’s inexperience and subordinate position, his supervisor’s directive that he work without gloves despite the foreman’s knowledge that safety regulations required their use constituted the “deliberate removal” of a safety guard within the meaning of R.C. 2745.01(C). An amicus curiae brief supporting Hewitt’s position has been submitted by the Ohio Association for Justice.

Representing The L.E. Myers Company: Benjamin C. Sasse, 216.696.3213

Representing Larry Hewitt: Paul W. Flowers, 216.344.9393

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Prosecutor Challenges Appellate Ruling Barring ‘Other Acts’ Evidence to Show Defendant’s Plan to Sexually Abuse Teen

State of Ohio v. Van Williams, Case no. 2011-2094
Eighth District Court of Appeals (Cuyahoga County)

ISSUE: In a case involving alleged sexual abuse of a teenage male by a male adult after he established a relationship as the victim’s mentor, do the Ohio Rules of Evidence allow the state to introduce at trial “other acts” evidence disclosing to the jury that the defendant engaged in a sexual relationship with a different teenaged male 12 years earlier, at a time when Williams was that boy’s high school sports coach?

BACKGROUND: In criminal cases, prosecutors are generally barred from introducing evidence about prior bad acts of a defendant that are not directly related to a crime with which the defendant is currently charged. However, a provision of the Supreme Court of Ohio’s Rules of Evidence, Evid.R. 404(B), sets forth exceptions to the bar against “other acts” evidence. 

Evid.R. 404(B) provides that evidence of “other crimes, wrongs or acts” is not admissible to prove  a defendant’s bad character or propensity to commit a future crime, but may be admissible as “proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity or absence of mistake or accident.”

In this case, Van Williams of Cleveland was charged with multiple counts of rape and gross sexual imposition for allegedly engaging in sexual conduct with a minor identified as J.H. during a period when J. H. was 14 and 15 years old.  J.H. testified that the sexual abuse began after Williams had established a close relationship with him as a mentor and substitute father-figure. At trial, over the objections of Williams’ attorneys, the court allowed the jury to hear testimony by another man, A.B., who testified that 12 years earlier he had been drawn into a sexual relationship with Williams while Williams was his high school swimming coach.

Williams was found guilty on multiple felony counts and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

He appealed his convictions, advancing among other arguments a claim that the trial court had violated the Rules of Evidence by admitting A.B.’s other-acts testimony, and that the jury had convicted him based on the prejudicial effect of A.B.’s testimony rather than on the other evidence presented in the case. In an en banc proceeding with all judges participating, the Eighth District Court of Appeals held that the trial court’s admission of  A.B.’s testimony into evidence was contrary to prior Supreme Court rulings regarding the admissibility of “other acts” evidence, and ordered that Williams receive a new trial.

The state, represented by the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office, sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the Eighth District’s decision.

Attorneys for the state assert that the Eighth District based its ruling largely on a 1975 decision, State v. Curry, in which the Supreme Court of Ohio held that other-acts evidence was admissible to show a defendant’s “scheme, plan or system” in committing a crime with which he is currently charged under only two sets of circumstances: 1) if the other acts took place as part of the “immediate background” of the current crime and were inextricably related to that crime, or 2) if the defendant claimed that he or she was not the person who committed the current crime, and the other-acts evidence established the identity of the defendant as the perpetrator.

The prosecutors argue that the Eighth District erred by following the Curry decision because the limitations imposed by Curry were based on statutory language that was superseded by the adoption of the Ohio Rules of Evidence, including Evid.R. 404(B), in 1980. They point to multiple court of appeals decisions in sex crime cases since 1980 which have held that Evid.R. 404(B) allows other-acts evidence regarding past sexual conduct by the defendant if that evidence demonstrates a plan or pattern of conduct in a previous incident that closely corresponds to the plan or pattern of conduct in the current case. 

In this case, they say, A.B.’s testimony describing how Williams “groomed” him for future sexual abuse by developing a close relationship while serving as his swimming coach was properly admitted by the trial court under Evid.R. 404(B) because that evidence demonstrated a similar pattern of conduct and corroborated J.H.’s testimony that Williams had used his position as a church choir leader to gradually assume a trusted, father-like role in  the teenager’s life, and then used that relationship as an opportunity to coerce sexual conduct.  They urge the court to overrule the Eighth District’s holding in this case, and to formally abandon Curry as an outdated precedent regarding the admissibility of other-acts evidence in the context of sexual abuse cases.

Attorneys for Williams assert  that the primary thrust of Evid.R. 404, like the statutory language cited by the Supreme Court in its Curry decision, is to prohibit the admission of evidence about a defendant’s past conduct in a trial for an unrelated crime except under very limited circumstances. They argue that other-acts evidence is generally barred in criminal cases because it powerfully undermines the presumption of innocence that jurors are required to bring to their examination of the evidence in the current case.

They urge the court to affirm the decision of the Eighth District, which they say properly found that the trial court should not have admitted A.B.’s testimony about events that took place 12 years before the alleged conduct for which Williams was on trial.  They point to state and federal court decisions holding that because of the social stigma attached to sexual offenses, courts should be particularly careful to exclude other-acts evidence in sex crime cases that identifies a defendant as a “bad person” and dramatically increases the likelihood that jurors will vote for conviction based on the defendant’s past conduct rather than on the actual evidence presented at trial. 

Defense counsel also urge the court to take note of the Eighth District’s finding that, even if the testimony of A.B. were found to be admissible under Evid.R. 404(B), the trial court still should have excluded it because the effect of that evidence in prejudicing the jury against Williams outweighed its value in proving his guilt or innocence of the current charges against him.

Representing the state and Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office: Matthew E. Meyer, 216.443.7800

Representing Van Williams: Stephen A. Goldmeier, 614.466.5394

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These informal previews are prepared by the Supreme Court's Office of Public Information to provide the news media and other interested persons with a brief overview of the legal issues and arguments advanced by the parties in upcoming cases scheduled for oral argument. The previews are not part of the case record, and are not considered by the Court during its deliberations.

Parties interested in receiving additional information are encouraged to review the case file available in the Supreme Court Clerk's Office (614.387.9530), or to contact counsel of record.