Ohio man wrongly put on death row seeks ability to sue the state

Dale Johnston was convicted for a 1982 murder before winning his freedom on appeal due to prosecutorial misconduct and the withholding of evidence


By Randy Ludlow
The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Ohio Supreme Court ruled last year that Dale Johnston was entitled to sue the state for damages for serving nearly seven years on death row for a pair of grisly murders did not commit.

Now, he is asking the justices to rule the same way — again.

Dale Johnston on Monday, March 9, 2015, in Grove City, Ohio recalls the years he''s spent fighting the state for a wrongful imprisonment ruling for the time he spent on Ohio death row from 1984 to 1990 for the slayings of his step-daughter and her boyfriend. (AP Photo/Andrew Welsh-Huggins)
Dale Johnston on Monday, March 9, 2015, in Grove City, Ohio recalls the years he''s spent fighting the state for a wrongful imprisonment ruling for the time he spent on Ohio death row from 1984 to 1990 for the slayings of his step-daughter and her boyfriend. (AP Photo/Andrew Welsh-Huggins)

Johnston, 82, now a Grove City resident, is asking the high court to overturn a Franklin County Court of Appeals ruling this past summer that blocked him from pursuing wrongful-imprisonment damages.

Johnston was convicted of the 1982 Hocking County murders of his stepdaughter and her fiance before winning his freedom on appeal due to prosecutorial misconduct and the withholding of evidence favorable to him.

The real killer, Chester McKnight, confessed in 2008 to the slayings of Annette Cooper, 18, and Todd Schultz, 19, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. McKnight shot both of them and, with help, carved up their bodies. The heads and limbs were buried in a cornfield and their torsos were thrown into the Hocking River.

While the Supreme Court said last year that Johnston could continue his decades-old fight for a finding of innocence, a ruling in a wrongful-imprisonment case a few weeks later introduced a new legal wrinkle.

The second case, which held an innocence claim could only be pursued if the errors in their case occurred after sentencing or imprisonment, led the appeals court to conclude that Johnston could not sue the state.

The misconduct that sent Johnston to prison occurred during his trial. Johnston's latest appeal filed Thursday contends the appeals court judges misapplied the law.

"It may be safe to say that no reasonable person in the history of mankind would or could review the facts surrounding these gruesome homicides and think anything other than Dale Johnston is and was an innocent man victimized by an overzealous application of Ohio's criminal justice system," wrote his lawyer, Charles Koenig of Columbus.

He classified the case as "the single most wrongful conviction and imprisonment in Ohio's history."

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