Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Cuyahoga County Man’s Wrongful Imprisonment Claim Can Continue

Over the objections of the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office, the common pleas court does have jurisdiction over a former death-row inmate’s claim that he was wrongfully imprisoned and is entitled to state compensation, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

In a per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court rejected a request from  Prosecutor Michael O’Malley that Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Michael J. Russo cease hearing the wrongful-imprisonment claim made by Joseph D’Ambrosio.

While the Court ruled Judge Russo can consider the claim, it may be short-lived. The opinion noted that O’Malley presented a “plausible argument” that D’Ambrosio’s case is barred under the legal doctrine of res judicata.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Judith L. French, Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, and Melody J. Stewart joined the opinion. Justice Sharon L. Kennedy concurred in judgment only, and Justice Michael P. Donnelly did not participate in the case.

Former Prisoner Seeks Designation
In 1989, D’Ambrosio was convicted of aggravated murder, kidnapping, and aggravated burglary and sentenced to death. His convictions and sentence were affirmed by the Ohio Supreme Court. But a federal court ruled in 2006 that D’Ambrosio was entitled to a new trial because the state violated the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 Brady v. Maryland decision by failing to disclose material evidence that could have helped his case.

After ongoing disputes between D’Ambrosio and prosecutors regarding evidence, the federal district court in 2010 barred the state from reprosecuting D’Ambrosio and was freed. In 2012, D’Ambrosio initiated a wrongful-imprisonment claim under R.C. 2743.48. The law sets up a two-step process. First, a common pleas court must rule that a person was wrongfully imprisoned and entitled to compensation. Then the person can file a lawsuit against the state in the Ohio Court of Claims to recover a sum of money.

Claim of Wrongful Imprisonment Disputed
To be declared wrongfully imprisoned, D’Ambrosio had to prove he met all five elements of R.C. 2743.48(A). The prosecutor’s office argued that D’Ambrosio failed to meet the fifth element, which requires he prove either that an “error in procedure” resulted in his release or that he did not commit the crime. D’Ambrosio argued both that he was freed because of a procedural error and that he did not commit the crimes.

The parties and trial court agreed the case would proceed in two phases. First, the court would decide whether D’Ambrosio’s procedural-error theory entitled him to prevail. If not, the court would proceed to consider the second argument that he did not commit the crimes.

The trial court found he met the law’s requirement that his release occurred because of a procedural error that took place after he was sentenced and during or after he was imprisoned. Because it agreed with D’Ambrosio’s procedural-error theory, the trial court did not review the second argument of whether D’Ambrosio committed the crime. The trial court declared in January 2013 that D’Ambrosio was wrongfully imprisoned and eligible to move on to the Court of Claims.

The prosecutor appealed the decision to the Eighth District Court of Appeals. Based on a similar case dealing with another claim for wrongful imprisonment (State v. Mansaray), the Eighth District affirmed the trial court’s ruling. The prosecutor appealed the decision to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Ohio Supreme Court reverses Mansaray and D’Ambrosio decisions
As the D’Ambrosio case was pending, the Supreme Court reversed the Eighth District’s opinion in Mansaray in March 2014. In that case, the procedural error that led to Yanko Mansaray’s release occurred before he was sentenced to prison. Based on the language of R.C. 2743.48(A), the Supreme Court ruled a qualifying error must have happened after sentencing and during or after imprisonment.

In June 2014, based on the Mansaray decision, the Supreme Court issued a one-sentence decision reversing the declaration that D’Ambrosio was wrongfully imprisoned. D’Ambrosio asked the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision, arguing that his situation was not the same as Mansaray’s because the errors in his case happened both before and after he was sentenced and imprisoned. He asked the case to be remanded to Judge Russo to decide if the Mansaray decision applied. The Supreme Court denied the request.

After the reconsideration denial, Judge Russo resumed the case and scheduled a trial. In March 2016, D’Ambrosio voluntarily dismissed the case so that he could refile it later. In March 2017, he filed a new complaint making the same two arguments.

Judge Proceeds with Case, Prosecutor Objects
O’Malley objected to Judge Russo’s effort to move forward with the refiled case. The prosecutor maintained that when the Supreme Court ended the case based on Mansaray, the matter was over and D’Ambrosio could not move forward. Judge Russo rejected that argument, stating the Supreme Court’s Mansaray ruling was irrelevant because it pertained to the 2012 case, not the new 2017 case.

In its opinion today, the Court rejected Judge Russo’s conclusion that its prior ruling was irrelevant. The Court wrote that Judge Russo’s 2013 ruling was a final order and that he lost jurisdiction of the case when it was appealed to the Eighth District. Because the case no longer was pending in his court, the judge had no authority to proceed after the Supreme Court reversed his decision.  The Court stated that its “final judgment of reversal remains binding on the parties.”

New Case Can Move Forward
The Court, however, did not agree with the prosecutor that Judge Russo lacks jurisdiction over D’Ambrosio’s refiled case. The opinion stated that while the doctrine of res judicata might apply to the current case, Judge Russo does have the authority to make that decision, and the prosecutor would have the right to appeal if he disagreed with Judge Russo’s assessment. The Court declined to block the case from moving forward and rejected a request from O’Malley to direct Judge Russo to rule in his favor and dismiss D’Ambrosio’s case.

2018-0996. State ex rel. O’Malley v. Russo, Slip Opinion No. 2019-Ohio-1698.

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.

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