Ohio court considers wrongful imprisonment lawsuit of now-81-year-old man who was on death row

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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. An appeals court threw out his conviction and sentence, prosecutors declined to retry him and in 2008, two other men confessed to the crime. (AP Photo/Andrew Welsh-Huggins)


COLUMBUS, Ohio — Dale Johnston was sent to death row in 1984 for a double homicide he didn't commit. He's spent the years since his 1990 release trying to get back the life he lost.

The Ohio Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in Johnston's latest attempt to win a wrongful imprisonment suit against the state.

Now 81, Johnston described his years under a death sentence as "hell on earth."

"Death row's the most horrible place anybody could be," he said in a recent interview at his home in Grove City in suburban Columbus. "Especially when you know they're wanting to kill you for something you didn't do."

The case dates to 1982, after parts of the dismembered bodies of his stepdaughter, Annette Cooper Johnston, and her boyfriend, Todd Schultz, were discovered in a cornfield a few days after they went missing.

Johnston was indicted the following year, and in 1984, a three-judge panel in Hocking County, based in part on testimony by a hypnotized witness, convicted Johnston of the killings and sentenced him to death on the theory he'd been having an affair with his stepdaughter and killed both in a jealous rage. An appeals court overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial, but a judge refused to allow the hypnotized witness' testimony and other evidence and the case was dismissed.

In 2008, two men confessed to the crime, with one saying he killed the couple and the other that he helped dispose of the bodies.

Three years ago, a Franklin County judge declared Johnston innocent, allowing him to seek compensation from the state, but an appeals court reversed the ruling.

Arguing a series of technicalities, the state says because Johnston failed in an earlier attempt to prove wrongful imprisonment, he isn't eligible to try again.

"Johnston already unsuccessfully brought a wrongful imprisonment action arising out of his criminal convictions," Debra Gorrell, an assistant attorney general, argued in a court filing last year. "This case seeks a do-over."

Johnston's attorney said with the real killer in prison, the state's arguments help perpetuate a "monstrous inequity."

Finding that Johnston was wrongfully imprisoned "is necessary to preserve the reputation for justice that the Ohio courts have elsewhere earned," attorney Todd Long said in a 2014 court filing.

Some justices seemed skeptical of the state's efforts to fight Johnston, given the judge's 2012 ruling in his favor.

"Why didn't the state just suck it up and say, 'Look, the prosecution of this thing was dead wrong. The investigation of it was wrong. It was a mess. It was a miscarriage of justice for Mr. Johnston'?" asked Justice Paul Pfeifer.

Stephen Carney, Ohio deputy solicitor, emphasized the state's position that the 2003 law under which Johnston sued doesn't apply to cases before it took effect.

Johnston worked in construction and later as a handyman, and he now lives quietly in a neat home with his wife, Roberta, on a 2-acre plot where he still puts in a large garden each year.

Ohio courts have awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past in similar cases.

"If I am able to get everything that the state says I'm allowed to have, that's still an insult when you figure what I lost," Johnston said.

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