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Daily Court Reporter - News Man’s wrongful imprisonment claim can continue


Man’s wrongful imprisonment claim can continue

Dan Trevas, Supreme Court of Ohio

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 recently.

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.

The opinion can be read online at:

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.

About the Supreme Court of Ohio

The Supreme Court is established by Article IV, Section 1 of the Ohio Constitution. Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution sets the size of the Court and outlines its jurisdiction. Article IV, Section 5 of the Constitution grants rule making and other authority to the Court.

The Supreme Court is the court of last resort in Ohio. Most of its cases are appeals from the 12 district courts of appeals. The Court may grant leave to appeal felony cases from the courts of appeals and may direct a court of appeals to certify its record in any civil or misdemeanor case that the Court finds to be "of public or great general interest."

The Supreme Court also has appellate jurisdiction in cases involving questions arising under the Ohio or United States Constitutions, cases originating in the courts of appeals, and cases in which there have been conflicting opinions on the same question from two or more courts of appeals. The Supreme Court hears all cases in which the death penalty has been imposed. These cases currently include both appeals from courts of appeals affirming imposition of the death penalty by a trial court and, for capital crimes committed on or after Jan. 1, 1995, appeals taken directly from the trial courts. Finally, the Supreme Court's appellate jurisdiction extends to review of the actions of certain administrative agencies, including the Public Utilities Commission.

The Supreme Court has original jurisdiction to issue extraordinary writs. These include writs of habeas corpus (inquiring into the cause of an allegedly unlawful imprisonment or deprivation of custody), writs of mandamus (ordering a public official to perform a required act), writs of procedendo (compelling a lower court to proceed to judgment in a case), writs of prohibition (ordering a lower court to stop abusing or usurping judicial functions), and writs of quo warranto (issued against a person or corporation for usurpation, misuse, or abuse of public office or corporate office or franchise).

The Constitution grants the Supreme Court exclusive authority to regulate admission to the practice of law, the discipline of attorneys admitted to practice, and all other matters relating to the practice of law. In connection with this grant of authority, the Supreme Court has promulgated the Supreme Court Rules for the Government of the Bar of Ohio. These rules address, among other things, admission to practice, attorney discipline, attorney registration, continuing legal education, and unauthorized practice of law.

The Constitution also gives the Supreme Court authority to prescribe rules governing practice and procedure in all courts of the state and to exercise general superintendence over all state courts. Procedural rules promulgated by the Supreme Court become effective unless both houses of the General Assembly adopt a concurrent resolution of disapproval. Rules of superintendence over state courts set minimum standards for court administration. Unlike procedural rules, rules of superintendence do not have to be submitted to the General Assembly to become effective.

In connection with all of the rules for which it has responsibility, the Supreme Court generally solicits public comment before adopting new rules or amendments in final form. The Court first publishes its rules and amendments in proposed form. These proposals appear in both the Ohio State Bar Association Reports and the Ohio Official Advance Sheets and indicate the period open for comment and the staff member to whom comments should be directed. The Court reviews all comments submitted before it decides whether to adopt or amend a rule.

Pursuant to the Constitution, the Chief Justice or a Justice designated by the Chief Justice is responsible for ruling on the disqualification of appellate and common pleas court judges. The procedure for obtaining review of a claim of disqualification against an appellate or common pleas judge is commenced by the filing of an affidavit of disqualification with the Clerk of the Supreme Court. The Revised Code contains specific requirements governing the filing of affidavits of disqualification.

Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution sets the size of the Court at seven -- a Chief Justice and six Justices, who are elected to six-year terms on a nonpartisan ballot. Two Justices are chosen at the general election in even-numbered years. In the year when the Chief Justice runs, voters pick three members of the Court.

A person must be an attorney with at least six years experience in the practice of law to be elected or appointed to the Supreme Court. Appointments are made by the Governor for vacancies that may occur between elections.

Date Published: May 29, 2019


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