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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Eleventh District: Trial Court Should Determine If Death Row Inmate Was Prevented from Seeing Email Evidence

A death row inmate convicted of killing three people may be able to file a motion for a new trial if it’s determined that he was clearly denied from seeing email evidence helpful to his case, the Eleventh District Court of Appeals ruled on March 16. The decision sends the case back to the Portage County Common Pleas Court to resolve its findings.

In January 2005, James Trimble murdered his girlfriend, Renee Bauer and her 7-year-old son in Ravenna before breaking into Kent State University student Sarah Positano’s home and taking her hostage. During the hostage situation, Trimble said he thought he heard a SWAT officer shoot a gun at him, which Trimble claimed startled him and ultimately caused him to shoot and kill Positano. Officers denied anyone was in the home or shot at Trimble. A jury later recommended the death penalty, and Trimble’s sentence was affirmed by the Ohio Supreme Court in 2009.

In August 2013, Trimble filed a motion for leave to file new trial motion after he found two emails and a public records request response that he said proved a SWAT officer was in Positano’s home at the time of the hostage situation. Trimble argued that “this new evidence impeaches prosecution witnesses who claimed that law enforcement did not enter Positano’s house during the standoff.”

The state responded and said Trimble failed to show by “clear and convincing evidence” that he was “unavoidably prevented” from discovering the emails and the public records response, and therefore he shouldn’t receive a new trial. Trimble had to show “clear and convincing evidence” because he filed his motion after the 120-day set time period after his conviction. The trial court ruled in favor of the state.

Trimble appealed the decision to the Eleventh District, which reversed the lower court’s ruling.

Writing for the court’s majority, Judge Timothy P. Cannon said: “If [Trimble] submitted documents that, on their face, support the claim that [Trimble] was unavoidably prevented from filing a timely motion but more information is necessary to determine whether he met his burden, the trial court must hold a hearing to determine whether [Trimble] can establish unavoidable delay by clear and convincing proof.”

Citing State v. Walden (1984), Judge Cannon added: “We note the trial court would only need to consider whether the evidence is, in fact, ‘newly discovered’ if it finds that appellant ‘had no knowledge of the existence of the ground supporting the motion and could not have learned of the existence within the time prescribed for filing the motion in the exercise of reasonable diligence.’”

Trimble had also argued to the Eleventh District that the state covered up emails regarding the presence of an officer in Positano’s home, but the court ruled that those claims were speculative and without merit.

Judge Cannon wrote that on remand, if the trial court determines that Trimble was “unavoidable prevented” from seeing the emails and other documents, then it must hold a hearing to determine if there was proof of “unavoidable delay” for a new trial. If the trial court determines the state prevented Trimble from seeing the emails, then Trimble must be allowed seven days to file a delayed motion for a new trial.

Judge Thomas R. Wright concurred in the decision.

Judge Diane V. Grendell disagreed, and in her dissent she wrote: “Trimble’s newly discovered evidence consists of an unsworn email by a former Portage County Deputy Sheriff with no apparent connection at all to the events of Trimble’s case… Trimble did not submit clear or convincing proof of being unavoidably prevented from discovering evidence, but merely of the existence of unauthenticated hearsay. Having failed to meet his burden, the denial of Trimble’s motion for leave should be affirmed.”

State v. Trimble, 2015-Ohio-942
Criminal Appeal From: Portage County Court of Common Pleas
Judgment Appealed From Is: Reversed and Remanded
Date of Judgment Entry on Appeal: March 16, 2015

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