Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Death Row Inmate’s Request for DNA Testing of Evidence Rejected

Image of death-row inmate Melvin Bonnell

Death-row inmate Melvin Bonnell

Image of death-row inmate Melvin Bonnell

Death-row inmate Melvin Bonnell

The Ohio Supreme Court declined today a request by a death-row inmate for additional DNA testing, finding that he failed to show that testing the evidence would change the outcome of his case.

In a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Terrence O’Donnell, the Court affirmed a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court denial to gather and test evidence related to Melvin Bonnell’s conviction and death sentence for the 1987 murder of Robert E. Bunner. Justice O’Donnell cited the trial court’s finding that the evidence presented at Bonnell’s trial — coupled with a 2009 DNA test that found Bunner’s blood on Bonnell’s jacket — led the court to conclude that Bonnell did not have “a plausible claim of actual innocence.”

Man Murdered in Cleveland Apartment
In November 1987, Shirley Hatch, Edward Birmingham, and Bunner shared an apartment on Bridge Avenue in Cleveland. At around 3 a.m., someone knocked on the kitchen door at the back of the apartment, and Bunner answered. Bonnell entered through the door and shot Bunner twice at close range. Hatch ran into a bedroom where Birmingham was sleeping.

Birmingham went into the kitchen while Hatch fled the apartment to call for emergency services. Birmingham found Bonnell on top of Bunner and pulled him off. Bonnell left the apartment.

About 40 minutes later, two Cleveland police officers observed a blue car driving backward on Bridge Avenue with the headlights off. They approached the vehicle, which led to a high-speed chase. The chase ended when the car crashed into the side of a funeral home, and the officers identified the injured driver as Bonnell.

Two other officers briefly arrived at the crash site before responding to a radio call that a man was shot at a Bridge Avenue apartment. Hatch and Birmingham described Bunner’s assailant to the officers, who recognized that the description fit the man whom they just had seen at the car crash.

After the crash, officers brought Birmingham to the hospital where Bonnell was being treated. He identified Bonnell as Bunner’s attacker. Police later retraced the car chase path and found a .25-caliber pistol, which was later identified as belonging to Bonnell. Tests determined it was the gun that shot Bunner.

Death Sentence Imposed
In 1988, a jury found Bonnell guilty of multiple felonies related to Bunner’s murder and recommended a death sentence, which the trial court imposed. The Eighth District Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction and death sentence in 1989, and on further appeal, the Ohio Supreme Court affirmed, finding the evidence of guilt to be “overwhelming.”

In 1995, Bonnell filed for postconviction relief. He argued the state withheld police and lab reports that were favorable to him, and that the state failed to preserve blood evidence from the back porch and steps leading to it. He also claimed his right to a fair trial was violated because the state never tested fingerprints at the crime scene, his hands for gunshot residue, the contents of his automobile, his pants, or vomit in the kitchen near the body.

His petition was ultimately rejected and the appellate court affirmed in 1999. A year later, Bonnell filed for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. That petition was rejected by a federal trial court in 2004 and an appeals court in 2007.

DNA Testing Sought
Bonnell again pursued relief in state court, applying for DNA testing of the vomit in the kitchen, blood in his vehicle, a hair on a pillow, and the plastic bags put over his hands in the hospital, which police placed on him in an attempt to preserve gunshot residue. The Cuyahoga County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office asked the court to reject Bonnell’s testing application and noted that “no parent sample” from the crime scene or victim existed to do a DNA comparison.

A change in state law permitted Bonnell to file another DNA testing application in 2008, in which he sought similar evidence from his first request and added blood collected at the crime scene; DNA collected from his hands, his jacket; and other clothes; and one or two guns recovered by Cleveland police.

In 2008, the prosecutor’s office indicated it had located Bonnell’s jacket, which was tested and revealed that some of Bunner’s blood was on it.

Attempts to Locate Evidence Failed
Bonnell’s request to test the other evidence languished until 2017 when he asked the trial court to compel the state to account for the physical evidence from the case. The county prosecutor submitted a report to the court detailing its efforts to locate the material including searches of: the prosecutor’s property room; the clerk of courts’ offices; the police department’s property room; the “dead files” section of the Eighth District Court of Appeals; the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation; the county medical examiner’s office; and the Western Reserve Historical Society, which sometimes received items from old cases.

The search found the medical examiner had seven slides from Bunner’s autopsy, four swabs from Bonnell’s jacket, one swab from an autopsy slide, and Bonnell’s jacket.

The trial court denied the DNA application for two reasons. It determined that no parent sample of any biological material existed to test against the obtained evidence, except the jacket that was tested already. The court also found that even if the material did exist, Bonnell could not meet the law’s requirement that the DNA testing would be “outcome determinative,” which would lead to a different verdict had the information been available for jurors to consider.

The trial court found the eyewitness testimony of Hatch and Birmingham, the police testimony about the car chase, the discovery of the gun that shot Bunner, and the jacket that was located in Bonnell’s car, which matched the jacket the witnesses said the assailant was wearing, led to Bonnell’s conviction.

Bonnell appealed the decision, and the Supreme Court was required to consider it.

Court Evaluates Testing Material
Justice O’Donnell explained that R.C. 2953.73 allows a court to accept a DNA testing application if six conditions apply. Two were at issue in Bonnell’s case: that biological material was collected from the crime scene or victim, and the parent sample still exists; and whether the DNA test results would be outcome determinative.

The opinion explained that Bonnell was bar-hopping with a friend, Joseph Popil, the night of the murder, and Bonnell suggested that Popil killed Bunner. Bonnell stated that Popil owned a red jacket with the words “Devil’s Den” on it and that, if the jacket were tested and had Bunner’s blood on it,  the result would be outcome determinative. However, Bonnell’s application did not request that Popil’s jacket be tested, the Court noted.

“As for the items he did ask to have tested, we recognize that DNA testing would not have changed the outcome of the trial,” the opinion stated.

Birmingham testified that when he entered the kitchen, Bonnell was crouched over Bunner after shooting and punching him repeatedly. Bonnell suggested that if he was the person Birmingham saw, then his clothes would be covered with Bunner’s blood. And if a DNA test of his clothing from the night of the crime did not have Bunner’s blood, he could not have been the attacker, Bonnell argued.

The Court explained that at the 1988 trial, a state forensic witness testified that Bunner’s blood was not on the jacket, so Bonnell already had the chance to argue his innocence based on the absence of blood evidence. But the jury still convicted him, and a new test would not strengthen his argument.

The Court stated the same would be true of evidence from Bonnell’s hands and his car. The prosecution did not prove there was gunshot residue on his hands or blood in his car, and the jury still convicted him.

The Court also noted that the pillow, initially thought to be in the apartment, was later determined to be outside on the porch. A test of a hair on the pillow would do little to help Bonnell’s case, the opinion stated. The Court also indicated that the vomit in the kitchen was never collected or stored and cannot be tested.

While Bonnell argued what he believed was the weakness of the evidence against him, he failed to show how the requested DNA testing of the evidence would change the outcome of his case, the Court concluded.

2017-1360. State v. Bonnell, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-4069.

Video camera icon View oral argument video of this case.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

Adobe PDF PDF files may be viewed, printed, and searched using the free Acrobat® Reader
Acrobat Reader is a trademark of Adobe Systems Incorporated.