September 17, 2014

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Ohio Supreme Court rejects Cleveland conviction, death sentence

COLUMBUS — A Cleveland man sentenced to death in a double homicide must be given a new trial because prosecutors failed to disclose documents that implicated someone else, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The evidence shows that Vernon Brown was involved in the 2004 shooting deaths of Duane Roan and Tearle Toeran during a drug deal, but Brown’s conviction and death sentence may not be “worthy of confidence,” Justice Judith Ann Lanziger wrote in the unanimous ruling.

“The prosecution breached its duty to provide to the defense all evidence material to Brown’s guilt or innocence,” Lanziger said. She also said Brown’s defense attorneys did a poor job representing him.

It was the second time in three years the court has rejected both a murder conviction and death sentence. In 2004, the court overturned Terrell Yarbrough’s murder conviction and death sentence in the killing of two college students kidnapped in Ohio and shot in Pennsylvania. The court said Yarbrough was tried in the wrong state.

In Wednesday’s ruling, the Supreme Court said prosecutors should have turned over two police reports that hinted that another man was involved in the shootings. The court said prosecutors failed to turn over the documents even though Brown’s attorneys had asked for all evidence held by the state.

Brown’s attorney John Parker said the case illustrates the problem lawyers have receiving information from prosecutors. A message was left with the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office seeking comment.

At trial, Brown didn’t dispute the charge that he shot the two men, but denied he “acted with prior calculation and design,” factors necessary for a death sentence.

Had Brown’s attorneys “known that someone else had claimed to have fired the gun that killed Toeran and Roan, they may indeed have changed their strategy,” Lanziger wrote.

The court also said Brown’s attorneys should have asked the judge to determine whether Brown was married to Jillian Wright, a key prosecution witness against Brown. The court has previously ruled that spouses can refuse to testify against each other.

Wright testified they were not married; Brown contended they were.

Had Wright “been properly advised that it was her choice whether to testify, and had she chosen not to testify, the case against Brown would have been significantly weakened,” Lanziger wrote.

Lanziger said the court didn’t take its decision to overturn both the conviction and death sentence lightly, but said it’s crucial that criminal defendants receive fair trials.