Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Court Orders New Trial in Cleveland Murder Case from 1988

The Ohio Supreme Court today overturned a trial court’s dismissal of a murder case set to be heard for a third time and ordered the lower court to move forward with the re-trial of Thomas M. Keenan of Cleveland.

Acknowledging the long, complicated history of the case, which includes at least 40 court decisions, the Supreme Court ruled the trial court’s dismissal and conclusion that Keenan can no longer receive a fair trial was premature. In a 4-3 decision, written by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, the court explained it is not yet known whether Keenan can get a fair trial this time around.

The decision reversed the Eighth District Court of Appeal’s judgment.

Although it may not be possible for Keenan to receive a fair trial, it is impossible for us to reach that determination at this time.”

Although it may not be possible for Keenan to receive a fair trial, it is impossible for us to reach that determination at this time.”
- Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, writing for the majority

Case History
Keenan ran a landscaping business in Cleveland and employed Anthony Klann, Edward Espinoza, and Joseph D’Ambrosio. The group met at a bar in late September 1988, and Klann was later found dead in a creek.

Keenan, Espinoza, and D’Ambrosio were indicted. In Keenan’s case, he was found guilty of Klann’s murder and sentenced to death. In 1993, the Ohio Supreme Court reversed the conviction.

In a second trial, Keenan was convicted again. In 1996, the Eighth District affirmed his conviction and death sentence, and the Ohio Supreme Court agreed with the ruling. However, a federal district court concluded in 2012 that Keenan had been denied his due process rights because the prosecution had withheld information that would have been favorable to him in his trial. The federal court ordered the state either to set aside Keenan’s conviction and death sentence or to conduct another trial within 180 days.

A new trial began on June 7, 2012. In September of that year, the trial court granted Keenan’s request to dismiss the case, noting that he could not receive a fair trial because of the prosecutor’s misconduct and other violations in the first two trials. The Eighth District agreed.

Court’s Ruling
Justice Pfeifer explained that the trial court in this case decided that it was impossible for Keenan to receive a fair trial before the parties had a chance to develop the record. However, the trial court should have given each side an opportunity to present evidence before ruling, Justice Pfeifer wrote.

 “We consider that an abuse of discretion,” Justice Pfeifer concluded. “Although it may not be possible for Keenan to receive a fair trial, it is impossible for us to reach that determination at this time.”

He noted the challenges in the case given the “voluminous record” and the death of some key witnesses.

“That something is hard to do does not mean that it is unconstitutional,” he reasoned. “We understand that Keenan will have difficulties based on the passage of time, deceased witnesses, decreased memories, and so forth. But so will the state …. In the event that these difficulties render it impossible for Keenan to defend himself, the trial court can at that time determine that a fair trial is not possible. But that day, if it comes, is in the future — at a minimum, after it is determined whether the state is able to establish its case in chief.”

The four-justice majority concluded that the trial court acted “unreasonably, arbitrarily, and unconscionably” when it dismissed the case without allowing Keenan and the state to advance the record, and ordered the new trial.

In the Majority
Joining the majority opinion were Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy, and Judge Jennifer Hensal of the Ninth District Court of Appeals. Judge Hensal filled in for Justice Terrence O’Donnell, who recused himself from the case.

Concurring Opinion
Justice Pfeifer also wrote a concurrence to express that this case illustrates why the death penalty in Ohio should be abolished.

“In this case, because Keenan has not been executed, there is still time for justice to be rendered appropriately,” he wrote. “If he had been executed, there would have been no way for the state to cleanse itself from the awful reality of having executed a person who had not received his full measure of legal protection. To ensure that that never happens, the General Assembly should abolish the death penalty.”  

Dissent’s Perspective
Justice Judith L. French dissented and was joined by Justices Judith Ann Lanzinger and William M. O’Neill. In the dissent’s view, the majority did not examine the appeals court’s analysis or the state’s specific arguments to this court.

In addition, “the majority improperly second-guesses the trial court without any clear indication that the trial court’s decision was unreasonable, unconscionable, or arbitrary,” Justice French wrote. “I respectfully dissent because the well-developed record, from which the trial court made extensive findings of fact and conclusions of law, provides a sufficient basis for the reasonable determination that ‘ ‘the harm done to … Keenan has been so egregious that this is the extraordinary case where the court has no other option’ ’ but to dismiss the indictment with prejudice.”

It is unnecessary for the trial court to further develop the record in this case, she reasoned, and she walked through a three-part analysis from the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Parson (1983).

“The trial court first stated, ‘[I]t is without question … that the State willfully withheld exculpatory evidence from Keenan and his attorneys.’ It next found that knowledge of the withheld information ‘would have clearly benefited’ Keenan’s defense. Consistent with the federal district court’s findings in Keenan’s habeas proceedings, the trial court found that the withheld information could have established that someone else had a motive for Klann’s murder, could have cast doubt on the state’s theory of the case, and could have had ‘significant impeachment value.’ Finally, the trial court expressly found that Keenan was severely prejudiced as a result of the state’s failure to disclose the exculpatory information ….”

2013-1731. State v. Keenan, Slip Opinion No. 2015-Ohio-2484.

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