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The case of Iran Doss: wrongful imprisonment

by Paul E. Pfeifer Contributing Columnist

March 6, 2014

This case involved a man named Iran Doss, who claimed that he had been wrongfully imprisoned. When Doss sought compensation from the state, his case eventually came before us — the Supreme Court of Ohio — for a final review.


In 2006, Doss was convicted by a jury of one count of rape and one count of kidnapping. He was classified as a sexually oriented offender, sentenced to four years in prison, and ordered to pay restitution and a fine.


On appeal, Doss challenged his convictions on several grounds, including a challenge to the evidence that the alleged victim’s ability to consent was substantially impaired due to a mental or physical condition and that Doss knew of that impairment.


By a two-to-one vote, the court of appeals vacated both the kidnapping and rape convictions. The court of appeals concluded that the state failed to present sufficient evidence showing that Doss knew — or had reason to know — that the alleged victim’s ability to consent was substantially impaired. The court vacated the convictions and ordered Doss discharged from prison.


After his release, Doss filed an action in the court of common pleas seeking compensation from the state for wrongful imprisonment. In July 2010, he filed a motion that consisted of two-and-a-half pages and only cited the court of appeals’ judgment as a basis for finding eligibility for compensation.


The state opposed the motion, offering the transcripts from the criminal trial to show that there were issues of fact and arguing that Doss had failed to establish his innocence by a preponderance of the evidence.


But the trial court granted Doss’s motion for the following reason: “The court of appeals’ decision to reverse and vacate Doss’s conviction and order his immediate release can only be interpreted to mean that either Doss was innocent of the charges upon which he was convicted, or that no crime was committed by Doss, or both.”


By another two-to-one vote, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling. The majority said that the state had presented no evidence that Doss knew — or should have known — that his alleged victim’s ability to resist or consent was substantially impaired because of voluntary intoxication. After that, his case came before us.


We began our review by noting that the Ohio legislature has developed a two-step process to compensate those who have been wrongfully imprisoned. The first step is an action in the common pleas court seeking a preliminary factual determination of wrongful imprisonment; the second step is an action in the Court of Claims to recover money damages.


The wrongful-imprisonment law, which is at the center of this case, presents five requirements that an individual must meet in order to be considered “wrongfully imprisoned,” and therefore eligible for compensation.


The fifth requirement — which was the only one at issue in this case — states that for a person to be considered a wrongfully imprisoned individual, it must be shown that “an error in procedure resulted in the individual’s release, or it was determined by a court of common pleas that the offense of which the individual was found guilty, either was not committed by the individual or was not committed by any person.”


In a case from 1989, our court held that when a person claiming wrongful imprisonment has obtained a judgment of acquittal, it does not mean that the person is owed compensation, because an acquittal is a determination that the state has not met its burden of proof. It’s not necessarily a finding that the accused is innocent. For this reason, a claimant advancing a wrongful-imprisonment claim must affirm his “innocence by a preponderance of the evidence.”


In that case, we explained that in enacting the wrongful-imprisonment law, the legislature “intended that the court of common pleas actively separate those who were wrongfully imprisoned from those who have merely avoided criminal liability.”


When a court vacates a criminal conviction based on insufficiency of the evidence, the court is saying that the state has not proven the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt; it is not saying that innocence has been proven. Thus, reversal on insufficient evidence does not automatically mean that the defendant was wrongfully imprisoned.


Doss argued that having his convictions vacated and being discharged from prison were proof of his innocence. But the state maintained that Doss did not provide the trial court with any additional evidence to prove that the alleged victim consented, or that he did not know of any impairment of her ability to consent, nor did he offer any other proof of his innocence of the charge of rape.


The trial court and the court of appeals, therefore, granted Doss a preliminary determination of eligibility for compensation for wrongful imprisonment without the required affirmative proof of his innocence.


Even though Doss’s successful appeal may have provided some support for his claim of wrongful imprisonment, it is not enough. He had the burden of proof to affirmatively establish his innocence.


Despite the jury’s verdict of guilt and without any evidence from Doss, the court of appeals held that the record showed insufficient evidence of the alleged victim’s substantial impairment. Thus, the judgment of the trial court that found Doss to be eligible for compensation and the court of appeals’ judgment affirming that finding were not based upon an affirmative showing of actual innocence. They were based on a dearth of evidence of guilt.


Both courts relieved Doss of his obligation to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he did not commit rape. That’s an obligation that must be fulfilled before he is allowed to claim the status of “wrongfully imprisoned.”


Therefore, by a seven-to-zero vote, we reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and sent the matter to the trial court for further proceedings.


Editor’s note: The case referred to is Doss v. State, 135 Ohio St.3d 211, 2012-Ohio-5678. Case No. 2012-0162. Decided Dec. 6, 2012. Majority opinion written by Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger.


Paul E. Pfeifer is a justice with The Supreme Court of Ohio.