COLUMBUS, Ohio — A former inmate who spent years on death row for a double murder he didn't commit can continue with his wrongful imprisonment lawsuit against the state, according to an Ohio Supreme Court ruling Wednesday.
The unanimous decision was a victory for Dale Johnston, now 82, who has fought for years to officially clear his name in the 3-decade-old killings of his stepdaughter and her boyfriend.
A 2003 law that updated the state's definition of a wrongfully imprisoned individual can be applied retroactively, Justice Terrence O'Donnell wrote for the court. That keeps alive Johnston's 2011 lawsuit seeking compensation.
A 1993 wrongful imprisonment lawsuit filed by Johnston was thrown out on the basis that he couldn't prove his innocence.
The state still believes Johnston is barred from suing by the statute of limitations and because his previous lawsuit was rejected, and the state is confident it will prevail when the case returns to a lower court, said Dan Tierney, a spokesman for the attorney general's office.
Wednesday's decision "is a good step" that will allow Johnston to continue arguing for his right to compensation, said his attorney, Todd Long.
State attorneys "have tried to raise every procedural roadblock that they can," Long said. "I hope that they change their attitude."
The case dates to 1982, after parts of the dismembered bodies of Johnston's 18-year-old stepdaughter, Annette Cooper Johnston, and her 19-year-old boyfriend, Todd Schultz, were discovered in a cornfield a few days after the pair vanished.
Johnston was indicted the following year, and in 1984, a three-judge Hocking County panel convicted Johnston of two aggravated murders and sentenced him to death, based in part on testimony from a hypnotized witness. Prosecutors alleged Johnston had been having an affair with his stepdaughter and killed both in a jealous rage, something Johnston always denied.
Annette Cooper Johnston's mother supported Johnston during the trial, though the couple eventually divorced.
An appeals court overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial, but a judge refused to allow the hypnotized witness's 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 saying 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 said because Johnston failed in in his 1993 attempt to prove wrongful imprisonment, he wasn't eligible to try again.
Johnston's attorney said with the real killer in prison, the state's arguments helped perpetuate a "monstrous inequity."
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 this year in an interview at his home in Grove City in suburban Columbus.
This story has been corrected to show one of the dead was Johnston's stepdaughter's boyfriend, not her fiance, and to delete a second erroneous reference to Johnston's age.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.