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Court News Ohio

Prosecutor Can Appeal Manslaughter Conviction Overturned by Trial Court

Prosecutors can appeal a judge’s decision granting a new trial to a Lucas County man on charges of voluntary manslaughter and seek to have the jury’s guilty verdict reinstated. But if the appeal is unsuccessful, double jeopardy prevents the man from being retried, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

The Sixth District Court of Appeals wrongly believed it did not have the authority to consider the Lucas County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office’s appeal once a common pleas court judge determined the state failed to present sufficient evidence to convict Ramiro Ramirez of voluntarily manslaughter, the Supreme Court ruled. Ramirez was charged for the 2016 shooting and killing of Dale Delauter across the street from a Toledo bowling alley.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice R. Patrick DeWine explained that neither the protections against double jeopardy guaranteed by the U.S. or Ohio constitutions, nor state law, prevent the prosecutor from asking an appeals court to reinstate the jury verdict or to issue a conviction for a lesser-included offense. However, if the appeals court agrees with the trial judge that there was insufficient evidence to convict Ramirez of manslaughter, the state is barred from retrying him for the crime.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and Michael P. Donnelly joined Justice DeWine’s opinion. Justice Donnelly also issued a brief concurring opinion.

Justice Melody J. Stewart concurred in judgment only without a written opinion.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Patrick F. Fischer suggested that the Ohio Supreme Court review an Ohio Rule of Criminal Procedure cited in the case, and determine if it should be repealed in light of prior decisions and today’s ruling. Justice Judith L. French joined Justice Fischer’s opinion.

Recording Couple’s Quarrels Escalates into Armed Encounter
Ramirez and two friends congregated outside a bowling alley near Ramirez’ car. Delauter lived across the street from the bowling alley, and that night, Delauter and his girlfriend engaged in a drunken argument on the sidewalk in front of his house. One of Ramirez’ friends was amused by the situation, walked toward the couple, and started recording the quarrel on his cell phone.

The situation quickly became heated and words were exchanged. Delauter hurled a racial slur at Ramirez’ friend, and Delauter went into his house. His girlfriend warned the men that Delauter was getting his gun. In response, Ramirez retrieved a pistol from his car and took cover behind the vehicle.

When Delauter emerged from the house with a shotgun, Ramirez fired several shots, killing Delauter. There was conflicting testimony about whether Delauter was pointing the gun toward Ramirez and his friends, or if it was held down by his side. An unloaded shotgun was found near his body inside the house.

Court Considers Manslaughter Charge
Ramirez was indicted for voluntary manslaughter under R.C. 2903.03. Part of the law states that no person “while under the influence of sudden passion or in a sudden fit of rage” brought on by the serious provocation of the victim shall cause the death of another.

Once the prosecution finished presenting its case, Ramirez twice asked the trial judge to acquit him, claiming that under Crim.R. 29 there was lack of sufficient evidence to convict him. Ramirez argued the state failed to prove he was under the influence of sudden passion or a sudden fit of rage, or whether Delauter provoked the response. The judge denied the motions, and a jury found Ramirez guilty of manslaughter.

Ramirez then cited Crim.R. 33(A)(4), and requested a new trial, arguing the jury’s verdict was not sustained by sufficient evidence. Again, he claimed there was no proof that he acted out of sudden passion or provocation. The trial judge concluded the prosecution had to prove sudden passion or provocation and it failed to do so. The court granted a new trial, and also the prosecutor’s request to appeal the decision.

The Sixth District Court of Appeals did not consider the evidence presented at the trial level, but instead ruled that after a finding of insufficient evidence, double jeopardy prevented any further proceedings, including an appeal. The appeals court held that under R.C. 2945.67, the state did not have a right to appeal. That law allows the state to appeal certain trial decisions “except for a final verdict.” The Sixth District reasoned that a judge’s granting of a new trial based on insufficient evidence is the equivalent of an acquittal, and an acquittal is a final verdict that cannot be appealed by the state.

The prosecutor appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Supreme Court Examines Precedent
Justice DeWine explained the U.S. and Ohio constitutions have similar language prohibiting an accused of being charged twice for the same offense, and the parties did not argue that the Ohio Constitution provided greater protections to criminal defendants. The opinion then cited the 1979 U.S. Supreme Court’s Burks v. United States decision where the high court stated that once a trial judge rules there was insufficient evidence to convict the accused, double jeopardy prevents a second trial.

The opinion noted that Burks is different than Ramirez’s case. The trial court did not acquit Ramirez, but granted him a new trial because the jury convicted him based on insufficient evidence. But the Court majority noted that the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the new trial question in Hudson v. Louisiana (1983), stating that if a judge grants a new trial based on an insufficient evidence finding, a retrial is barred by double jeopardy.

But the majority opinion stated that the Sixth District was mistaken in believing that double jeopardy principles prevented it from considering the case. Had a jury found insufficient evidence to find Ramirez guilty, the prosecutor could not appeal, the opinion stated. But, under established double jeopardy principles, when a trial judge overrules a jury decision, an appeals court can consider reinstating the jury verdict or imposing a charge on a lesser-included offense, the Court stated.

“So, although double-jeopardy principles prevent a retrial, they do not prevent an appeal,” the opinion stated.

State Law Also Does Not Stop Appeal
Not only does double jeopardy not prevent an appeal, neither does state law, the Court ruled. The Court examined its prior precedent regarding the appeal of rulings based on insufficient evidence claims. The opinion explained that two rules, both invoked by Ramirez, allow an accused to challenge a conviction based on insufficient evidence. The Court noted that it has found that a judgment of acquittal based on Crim.R. 29 is a final verdict and cannot be appealed under R.C. 2945.67(A).

The second rule, Crim.R. 33(A)(4), is a request for a new trial based on insufficient evidence. Ramirez argued that since the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that granting a new trial based on insufficient evidence is essentially the same as an acquittal, the rule should be interpreted as if Ramirez had been acquitted when the trial judge granted him a new trial. That ruling should be considered a final verdict under R.C. 2945.67(A), and the prosecutor should not be allowed to appeal it, he contended.

The majority opinion stated the plain language of Crim.R. 33(A)(4) grants a new trial, and that directs the trial court to conduct further proceedings. A rule directing courts to conduct further proceedings cannot be interpreted as a final verdict. R.C. 2945.67(A) does not prevent an appeal when a trial judge orders a new trial, the opinion concluded.

Concurrence Questions Relevance of Rule
Justice Fischer wrote that today’s ruling and prior cases found that once the trial court rules there is insufficient evidence of a conviction, the decision is essentially an acquittal. Usually, such a finding is a final verdict that cannot be appealed. Yet, under the Court’s existing rules that is not always the case; an order granting a Crim.R. 29 motion is a final verdict that cannot be appealed while an order granting a Crim.R. 33 (A)(4) motion is not a final verdict and can be appealed.

“This does not make sense,” he wrote.

The concurring opinion stated that often the Court reminds parties that the legislature is always free to change the law to address new developments or policy concerns. The Court “should heed our own advice” when rules become outdated by recent court decisions, and consider revising Crim.R. 33(A)(4), the opinion stated.

Concurrence Clarifies What Not at Issue
In his concurrence, Justice Donnelly noted the limited nature of the court’s holding that expresses no opinion on the trial court’s application of the Ohio Supreme Court’s 1992 State v. Rhodes decision.

2018-0900. State v. Ramirez, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-602.

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