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Man Granted New Hearing; Claims DNA Results Exclude Him From 1997 Rape

Double helix DNA strand

Court orders hearing for man convicted in 1997 who claims that DNA evidence excluded him from being one of two rapists.

Double helix DNA strand

Court orders hearing for man convicted in 1997 who claims that DNA evidence excluded him from being one of two rapists.

The Supreme Court of Ohio today ruled that a man convicted of a 1997 rape is entitled to a hearing to determine if he should get a new trial based on his claim that DNA evidence excluded him from being one of two rapists.

Martin Hatton was convicted of rape and other charges and sentenced to 39 years in prison. More than 20 years later, he discovered a memo from the state’s DNA expert to the Pickaway County prosecutor, which he claimed indicated that his DNA was not present in the sample taken from the 17-year-old victim. The victim was raped by two men, including one who was caught at the crime scene.

A Supreme Court majority found the Pickaway County Common Pleas Court and the Fourth District Court of Appeals wrongly rejected Hatton’s request for a hearing to determine if he is entitled to a new trial. The Court found the lower courts used the wrong standards when assessing the impact of the information in the memo.

Writing for the Court majority, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor stated the “memo illuminated a substantial hole in the state’s theory of the case against Hatton,” and he deserves “an opportunity to prove at an evidentiary hearing that the new information contained in the memo, had it been available to him at trial, would likely result in a different outcome.”

Justices Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, and Melody Stewart joined the chief justice’s opinion. Justice Sharon L. Kennedy concurred in judgment only.

Justice Michael P. Donnelly joined the majority opinion and wrote a separate concurring opinion to note that Hatton’s case illustrates the “pitfalls” of the process for retrying those claiming innocence based on evidence that was not available at the time of the original trial. He noted a July 2022 report from a Supreme Court task force recommended that the legislature and the judiciary change the procedures for reviewing postconviction claims of innocence, and that an independent commission should investigate whether an accused should receive a new trial.

Justice Jennifer Brunner joined Justice Donnelly’ s opinion.

DNA Dispute Raised During Trial
In 1997, Hatton and Ricky Dunn were tried for raping a girl identified in court records as “J.C.” Prosecutors argued that Hatton raped J.C. at knifepoint in her upstairs bedroom of the family home and then forced her to go downstairs where Dunn raped her. J.C. could not identify who raped her in the bedroom.

J.C.’s father, who walked downstairs during the commission of the crime, restrained Dunn, while J.C. and her mother called police. J.C.’s father testified that he did not see the other person, but as he restrained Dunn, Dunn screamed out “Marty, Marty, Marty” and said he had come to the house with Marty Hatton.

When a police officer arrived, Dunn again stated that he came to the house with Hatton.

At Hatton’s trial, Raman Tejwani, a criminalist employed by the City of Columbus Crime Lab, testified as an expert witness. Tejwani said the samples that were tested for DNA were mixed samples that contained DNA from more than one person. She testified that she could “neither exclude nor include anybody” as a contributor to the mixed samples. She had previously provided Hatton’s attorney a copy of the lab report, which stated that the test results were “inconclusive.” At the conclusion of her testimony, Tejwani also provided Hatton’s attorney with a copy of her notes, which had not previously been turned over.

Hatton’s own forensic expert, Larry Dehus, testified that there was information in Tejwani’s notes that was not included in the lab report, including the presence of a B allele. An allele is one form of genetic information present in DNA. Genetic testing indicated that Dunn, Hatton, and J.C.’s DNA all lacked a B allele as a genetic marker where the B allele was located in the mixed samples. Dehus stated that meant someone other than Hatton or Dunn was a contributor to the male portion of the DNA sample.

The prosecutor never rebutted Dehus’ testimony about the significance of the B allele, and in closing arguments, the prosecutor told the jury that Dehus’ testimony about the results of the DNA testing was no different than Tejwani’s. The prosecutor flatly rejected the argument that someone other than Hatton or Dunn was involved, stating there was no third person, and it was only Hatton and Dunn who were in J.C.’s house.

Appeal Raises Questions About Expert Testimony
Hatton appealed his conviction. The Fourth District affirmed the judgment, rejecting Hatton’s argument that the state’s failure to disclose the existence of the B allele deprived him of a fair trial. The appellate court noted the jury had a chance to hear about the B allele and its significance from Dehus, Hatton’s expert witness.

In 1998, while Hatton’s appeal was pending, he also filed a petition for postconviction relief. Hatton’s new attorney contacted Tejwani. Following the conversation, Tejwani wrote a memo to the prosecutor about her discussion of the B allele with Hatton’s attorney. The memo stated the B allele “was not observed in the known blood samples” of J.C., Hatton, or Dunn.

The memo was the first and only acknowledgment in the record by a witness for the state that the B allele indicated someone other than Hatton or Dunn contributed male DNA to the mixed sample. The prosecutor did not disclose the memo to Hatton’s attorney.


Record Request Uncovers Memo
Hatton discovered the 1998 memo in the responses to a public records request he filed in 2018. He then filed a motion for leave to file a motion for a new trial and submitted another petition for postconviction relief. His arguments were similar to the ones raised in his 1998 appeal, but he argued that the memo reinforced his contention that Tejwani’s testimony was false.

Without conducting a hearing, the trial court denied his motion for leave to file a motion for a new trial and his petition for postconviction relief. The Fourth District affirmed the decision. Hatton appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Supreme Court Analyzed Standards That Govern Requested Relief
Chief Justice O’Connor explained that the trial and appeals courts rejected Hatton’s efforts to obtain a new trial because they did not consider the evidence in the memo to be new, in light of discussions of the DNA sample and the B allele during the original trial.

“Both courts’ conclusions, however, are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Tejwani memo and its import,” the chief justice wrote.

The opinion noted the lower courts’ interpretations were that the memo reiterated Tejwani’s testimony that the DNA results were inconclusive. The Court, however, stated the memo also acknowledges that the prosecution’s witness knew the B allele did not come from Hatton or Dunn and had to come from another male source.

“That new information creates an obvious hole in the state’s narrative that two men entered J.C.’s home, that those two men raped J.C and left their DNA, and that those two men were Hatton and Dunn,” the opinion stated.

The Court noted the results do not “necessarily exonerate Hatton,” because the mixed sample could come from two men or more than two men, according to the expert witnesses in the case. But armed with the information in the memo, Hatton could have challenged Tejwani’s incomplete testimony, and used it to confirm Dehus’ testimony that the B allele in the mixed samples could not have come from Hatton, the opinion stated. That would require the state to offer some explanation for the additional contributor, given the prosecutor’s argument that Hatton and Dunn were the only offenders, the Court noted.

The Supreme Court also noted the lower courts “sidestepped” the process used to determine if Hatton should receive a hearing on his motion for leave to file a motion for a new trial. Under the Ohio Rules of Criminal Procedure, a convicted defendant generally has 120 days after the jury verdict to request a new trial. A request after 120 days, based on newly discovered evidence, requires a two-step process, the Court explained.

Because his request was submitted 20 years after the trial, Hatton was required to first file a motion for leave to file a motion for a new trial, and a judge must grant the motion for leave before considering the request for a new trial itself. At this first step, Hatton had to prove by clear and convincing evidence only that he was unavoidably prevented from discovering the new evidence within the 120-day period.

If the motion for leave is granted, the second step requires Hatton to show the newly discovered evidence has “a strong possibility that it will change the result if a new trial is granted.” The Court stated that the trial judge and Fourth District skipped the first step. Instead of judging only whether Hatton was unavoidably prevented from discovering the evidence, the lower courts focused on whether the new information would likely change the results of a trial.

Because Tejwani’s memo was written more than 120 days after Hatton’s 1997 conviction, the Court concluded Hatton clearly proved he could not have discovered that evidence before the time to request a new trial elapsed.

The Court remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to grant Hatton’s motion for leave to file a motion for a new trial. It stated that Hatton is entitled an evidentiary hearing, at which the trial court should consider if Hatton should receive a new trial.

The opinion stated the Court expresses “no opinion on whether Hatton should ultimately prevail on the merits of his motion for a new trial.” The Court also instructed the trial court to determine whether Hatton satisfied the requirements for an untimely and successive petition for postconviction relief and, if so, to determine the merits of Hatton’s petition.

The Court cautioned the trial court against “indulging in the mischaracterization of the Tejwani memo that permeated the lower courts’ prior decisions in this matter.”

Process for Claiming Innocence Should Be Reformed, Concurrence Asserted
In his concurrence, Justice Donnelly noted that with the help of the Ohio Innocence Project, Hatton requested DNA testing in 2005 and 2008, which the trial court denied because a jury could have found Hatton guilty based on the other evidence and testimony of other witnesses. In 1998, Hatton had provided an affidavit of Dunn’s cellmate claiming that Dunn admitted to falsely accusing Hatton. 

In 2009, Dunn recanted his testimony and accused another man of being with him at J.C.’s house.  In addition to the memo from the state’s DNA expert, Hatton’s 2019 motions included a police report indicating that the police had not intended on filing charges against Hatton until a municipal court judge called the police department and demanded that charges be filed, the concurrence noted.

Justice Donnelly maintained the evidence Hatton accumulated over time was “evidence that if true would merit a new trial,” and the trial judge’s refusal to even consider a hearing in 2019 to assess the truth of Hatton’s claim was “unreasonable.” The system of having the trial judge who presided over a defendant’s trial determine if a new trial is warranted should be reformed, Justice Donnelly argued.

Justice Donnelly pointed to a recommendation by the Ohio Task Force on Conviction Integrity and Postconviction Review calling for the General Assembly to create an Independent Innocence Inquiry Commission and change the laws for postconviction petitions. The task force also called for the Supreme Court of Ohio to add a new procedure for new-trial motions that involve claims of innocence.

"Under these reforms,” he said, “a hearing would be required for all nonfrivolous claims of innocence that include evidence that was not proffered during the original proceedings.” 

He urged the Court and the General Assembly to “give serious consideration to these proposals for reform.”

2021-0704. State v. Hatton, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-3991.

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