ELYRIA — Defense attorney Mike Duff has accused two assistant county prosecutors of coaching witnesses in a juvenile vehicular homicide case to leave out a key piece of evidence when they testified earlier this month.
Duff wrote in a motion seeking a mistrial that two passengers in the vehicle were told not to tell Lorain County Juvenile Magistrate Steve List that the teenager killed in the Feb. 27, 2012, accident had grabbed the wheel just before the 1999 Ford Escort his client was driving crashed.
“The prosecutor pursued a conviction rather than the truth,” Duff said Monday following the conclusion of testimony in the trial of 19-year-old Laniqua Lusane. “Their job is to pursue the truth, not a conviction. They played hide-and-seek with the justice system.”
Lusane was 17 years old when she lost control of her westbound car on state Route 2, according to court documents. She later told Ohio Highway Patrol troopers that she was speeding and that the car veered out of the lane and onto the rumble strips on the side of the road.
The front-seat passenger in the vehicle, 16-year-old Alexandra Clifford, grabbed the wheel and pulled the vehicle to the right, according to court filings. Lusane pulled the steering wheel back and lost control of the Escort, which went off the side of the road, hit an embankment and went airborne.
The car hit several trees, including one that punched through the floor, before it came to a stop. Lusane, Clifford and the two back seat passengers Tyrell Hicks and Lucius Johnson, were all injured in the crash. Clifford’s injuries proved fatal.
County Prosecutor Dennis Will said he disagrees with Duff’s assertion that the two prosecutors originally handling the case, Jay Grunda and Adam Bryda, were trying to hide the information. He also said he doesn’t see how it would negatively impact Lusane’s ability to receive a fair trial since Clifford’s actions were already part of the record in the case.
“I don’t know what the prejudice is that anybody suffered,” Will said.
He said Duff was well aware that the witnesses in the case had all told troopers that Clifford had grabbed the wheel. He said it was mentioned not only in witness statements but also in court filings.
Will said his office tried to suppress that information from being considered in the case because there was no proof that Clifford grabbing the wheel was the direct cause of the accident. List rejected the request to bar the information last year, but agreed to revisit the matter during the trial, according to court records.
Will said Grunda and Bryda told Hicks and Johnson that “we’re not going to ask you, but if someone else asks, you have to tell the truth.”
Duff said that’s not what Johnson testified he and Hicks were told by prosecutors.
In a partial transcript of the hearing attached to a motion filed last week requesting a mistrial, Duff asked Johnson about the conversation he and Hicks had with prosecutors.
“I’m asking you, did this prosecutor tell you not to mention that Ali grabbed the wheel? Did he tell you that?” Duff asked in the transcript.
“Yes, sir,” Johnson replied.
Later in the transcript, Johnson testified that prosecutors told Hicks the same thing.
Despite Duff’s request for a mistrial, List resumed the trial Monday, but with Assistant County Prosecutor Freddie Springfield handling the case.
Will said his understanding is Springfield taking over the case had nothing to do with a belief that Grunda and Bryda had done anything improper. He said it was because Springfield, as their supervisor, wanted to handle the matter herself.
List rejected requests from Will’s office to continue the trial and to prevent further discussion of how prosecutors prepared their witnesses to testify.
Duff said he believes that at the very least Grunda and Bryda committed ethical violations, although he stopped short of saying the pair had committed a crime. He said the end result is that Lusane’s right to a fair trial has been hindered by what he believes was an effort by prosecutors to conceal evidence that would have helped his client’s case.
“While it would be overreaching to accuse the Assistant Prosecuting Attorneys of suborning perjury, the result of coaching witnesses to misrepresent the facts of this case through omission is the functional equivalent as a constitutional matter,” he wrote.
Duff said that with the conclusion of testimony in the case, both sides will file written arguments on their positions and then List will rule on whether Lusane should be convicted of vehicular homicide and negligent assault.