August 2, 2014

Elyria
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Bank robbery conviction nixed over search

A federal appeals court has thrown out Robert Starnes Jr.’s conviction for three 2010 bank robberies because of how investigators went about obtaining much of the physical evidence used against him during his trial.

Starnes

Starnes has long argued that the searches of his Sheffield Lake apartment and his vehicle were illegal because they were conducted on the grounds that he was under the supervision of the Ohio Adult Parole Authority, which doesn’t need a warrant to search a parolee’s home or vehicle.

In a decision announced Wednesday, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that U.S. District Court Judge David Dowd Jr. erred when he refused to grant Starnes’ request to suppress the evidence gathered by the FBI and other police agencies during the search.

Starnes is currently serving a 15-year term in federal prison for robbing the Lorain National Bank branch on North Ridge Road in Elyria Township of $4,616 on June 28, 2010. He is accused of stealing $4,653 during a July 14, 2010, robbery of the FirstMerit Bank branch in Amherst and another $1,845 from the Chase Bank branch in Sheffield Lake on July 21, 2010.

The Parole Authority, along with the FBI and local police, arrested Starnes, who they suspected was the robber, in his apartment the day after the Chase robbery on the grounds that he was a parole violator because Starnes hadn’t been reporting to his parole officer.

But Starnes and his wife, Kimberly Starnes, insisted to those raiding their apartment that they had no right to be there because Starnes wasn’t actually on parole.

As proof, they pointed to a March 2010 order from Lorain County Common Pleas Judge Christopher Rothgery in which the judge told the Parole Authority to stop monitoring Starnes because the judge had converted his parole in two 1993 cases to probation as part of a plea deal in 2005.

An attorney with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, which oversees the Parole Authority, later sent Rothgery an email explaining that the state didn’t believe his order was valid and intended to continue monitoring Starnes. Rothgery has previously said he was allowed to change Starnes’ parole to probation under the laws in effect at the time he did so.

The state never appealed the decision and later declared Starnes a parole violator when he stopped checking in with his parole officer. Rothgery denied several requests by Starnes to hold the Parole Authority in contempt of court for violating his order.

Citing another case, the appeals court wrote that the Parole Authority’s failure to adhere to Rothgery’s order “erodes public confidence in law enforcement” and “undermines the rule of law itself.”

“Contrary to the government’s suggestion, the APA has no authority to disregard a binding court order simply because it disagreed with the sentencing judge’s legal analysis,” the decision said. “A law enforcement agency has no power to deliberately ignore a court order.”

The appeals court also wrote that Dowd’s conclusion that the Parole Authority had taken sufficient steps to disagree with Rothgery’s decision by sending the judge a private message was incorrect.

“We would not indulge a defendant who pursued such a tactic, and we see no reason to extend such special consideration to the APA,” the appeals court wrote.

Federal prosecutors also argued that Kimberly Starnes had granted permission to search the apartment for evidence, but the appeals court wrote that she only gave permission after her apartment had been stormed by armed police and she was forced to the ground and handcuffed.

Although the handcuffs were removed a short time before an FBI agent asked her to sign a consent-to-search form, Kimberly Starnes testified she was frightened, didn’t understand what she was signing and believed that even if she refused the search would have continued. Kimberly Starnes received two years of probation after pleading guilty to charges she lied about where she and her husband were at the time the robberies took place.

During the search of the apartment and Robert Starnes’ vehicle, investigators found a BB gun similar to one the robber showed during one of the bank heists, a bandana and baseball cap matching what the robber wore and a notebook page with writing indentations that matched a note given to a teller during one of the robberies.

Although there was eyewitness testimony and surveillance footage of the robberies, the appeals court wrote that the prosecution relied heavily on the evidence gathered during the illegal search.

Without that evidence, the appeals court concluded, Starnes might not have been convicted.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.