Appeals Court Failed to Accurately Assess if 20-Year Delay in Rape Charge Violated Due Process
The Eighth District Court of Appeals applied an incorrect standard in reviewing the claim of a Cleveland man indicted 20 years after the alleged crime that the delay harmed his defense and violated his constitutional rights, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.
The Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Eighth District Court of Appeals’ finding that rape and kidnapping charges against Demetrius Jones should be dropped where prosecutors waited until the last day of the 20-year statute of limitations to indict him.
Writing for the Court, Justice Judith L. French stated the Eighth District used the wrong standard to determine if the delay prejudiced Jones’ defense, and the Court returned the case to the appellate court to evaluate the claim based on standards the Supreme Court laid out in a 1984 decision.
Tested Rape Kit Revives Interest in Prosecuting Jones
In 1993, a woman identified in court records as S.W. reported to Cleveland police that Jones raped her. The responding officers transported her to St. Luke’s Hospital where a rape kit was administered.
S.W. told police she was with Jones at his mother’s apartment and that she told Jones she wanted to leave. He refused to let her leave, and threatened her with a knife until they had sex, she reported. She said she screamed for help and tried to fight off Jones, but neither his mother nor another individual at the apartment responded. She identified Jones as her attacker.
In the week after the incident, police twice failed to locate S.W at the address she listed as her home on the incident report, but then took no further action, including photographing the alleged crime scene, collecting S.W.’s clothing or other physical evidence, or interviewing witnesses. The department noted that until S.W. assisted, it was not taking any further investigative steps. The department’s report stated Jones was no longer wanted in connection with the case.
The rape kit was sent to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation in 2011, 18 years after the alleged rape, as part of a statewide rape-kit testing initiative. Testing of the kit positively identified Jones, and in August 2013, a Cuyahoga County grand jury indicted Jones.
Jones Argues Unjustifiable Delay
Jones filed a motion to dismiss the case based on unconstitutional preindictment delay. He argued that as a result of the delay, his mother, who S.W. said was present at the time of the alleged rape, had died. He also said his case was prejudiced by the unavailability of S.W.’s 911 call or any physical evidence from the scene, including S.W.’s clothing.
Jones asserted the delay was unjustifiable because the police claimed they could not locate S.W., but records indicated she had been arrested by Cleveland police several times after the alleged rape, and they could have pursued the case then. He also argued the DNA match did not justify delay because Jones’ identity was known to the police from the beginning. The trial court granted Jones’ motion and dismissed the case, noting the loss of physical evidence and the death of Jones’ mother prejudiced his case.
Divided Eighth District Upholds Trial Court
The Eighth District affirmed the trial court in a divided 7-4 en banc decision with the majority evaluating the claim “in terms of basic concepts of due process and fundamental justice.” The dissenting judges criticized what they deemed a new standard of “due process and fundamental justice” and claimed state law required that Jones prove the delay caused him harm. Because Jones did not know what his mother’s testimony would have been, the dissenting judges reasoned that Jones had not demonstrated that her death negatively impacted his case.
Jones appealed the decision, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
Constitution Protects Against Unjustifiable Delay
Justice French explained, the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment guarantees “the right to a speedy and public trial” when someone is accused of a crime, but it does not provide protection to those yet to be accused. The Sixth Amendment does not require the government act within a particular period of time to investigate and charge someone of a crime, but statutes of limitations do provide an ultimate time limit.
However, even if the state brings an indictment within the statute of limitations, if unjustifiable delay in bringing the indictment causes actual harm to the accused’s right to a fair trial, the due process clauses of the Ohio and U.S Constitutions provide additional protection, she wrote.
Justice French cited the Supreme Court’s 1984 State v. Luck decision, which stated that preindictment delay violates due-process rights “only when it is unjustifiable and causes actual prejudice.” And she cited the Supreme Court’s 1998 State v. Whiting decision, which established a “burden-shifting framework” that must be followed to assess a due-process claim based on preindictment delay.
In this case, Jones must present evidence that the delay would actually harm his case. If he does, then the state has to produce evidence that it had a justifiable reason for delay, the opinion explained.
Justice French wrote the Eighth District did not fully follow the two-part process but instead blurred the proof of actual prejudice with the reasons for delay and focused exclusively on the actions and inactions of the police. She noted, the state had no obligation to present evidence justifying the preindictment delay until Jones presented evidence that the delay caused actual prejudice to his defense.
Jones Needs to Prove Loss of Critical Information
To satisfy his obligations under the Luck test, Jones had to do more than speculate that the years of delay led to lost evidence that would have helped his case. The possibility that memories will fade, witnesses will be inaccessible, and evidence will be lost, is not sufficient to prove prejudice, Justice French wrote.
However, while Jones must provide more than speculation about what his mother would have said, he does not have to specifically articulate her testimony to prove harm, the Court determined.
“Actual prejudice exists when missing evidence or unavailable testimony, identified by the defendant and relevant to the defense, would minimize or eliminate the impact of the state’s evidence and bolster the defense,” Justice French wrote, citing the Luck decision.
The Court declined to decide whether Jones succeeded in establishing the delay harmed his defense, but Justice French explained the Court was remanding the case to the Eighth District to make that determination by using the actual-prejudice standard set by Luck.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Terrence O’Donnell, Sharon L. Kennedy, and William M. O’Neill joined Justice French’s opinion.
Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger concurred in judgment only.
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