Amendments to Ohio’s wrongful imprisonment statute apply retroactively, rules Ohio Supreme Court

The Ohio Supreme Court unanimously ruled today that the wrongful imprisonment statute amended in 2003 applies retroactively when the imprisonment took place before that date, but the claims for wrongful imprisonment were filed after the date. The case before the court involved Dale Johnston, who was convicted for the murders of his stepdaughter and her fiance in 1984. After spending six years on death row, Johnston was granted a new trial and the indictments against him were subsequently dropped. The appeals court had granted the new trial because testimony about what a witness recalled under hypnosis was improperly admitted, and because the state hadn't disclosed potentially exculpatory evidence that the crime may have been committed elsewhere by someone else.

Johnston filed a wrongful imprisonment claim in 1993, but the court dismissed it because he had not proven he was innocent, which the statute required at that time. The General Assembly amended the statute in 2003 to allow wrongful imprisonment claims when the person had been released due to a procedural error subsequent to sentencing.

In 2008 another man pleaded guilty to the murders. Johnston then filed a wrongful imprisonment claim again, arguing both that he was innocent and that procedural errors as described in the 2003 amendment resulted in his release. The trial court found him to have been wrongfully imprisoned, but the 10th District reversed, finding that the amendment did not apply to his case because it did not apply retroactively. The court did not address other arguments the state raised against finding Johnston wrongfully imprisoned (such as statute of limitations, res judicata and failing to meet other requirements of the statute) because it found they were moot if the statute didn't apply retroactively.

The Ohio Supreme Court reversed, finding that the 2003 amendment should apply retroactively to Johnston's case. The court looked to constitutional requirements for retroactivity: 1 - that the legislature must have expressly intended it to be retroactive and 2 - that it isn't substantive, impairing rights or imposing new burdens on old actions. The court found that the General Assembly expressly intended the amendment to apply retroactively, and that it did not impair the rights of individuals seeking to recover under it. The court emphasized that while the amendment was substantive, it only impaired and burdened the state, and so the amendment could be applied retroactively.

Johnston's case isn't settled, however. The court remanded the case to the 10th District so that they could consider the state's other reasons why Johnston should not be found wrongfully imprisoned. For more information about this case, see articles from Court News Ohio  and the Columbus Dispatch and the online docket, available here.