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December 1, 2004

A remarkable (capital) lesson for lawyers and law students

In a remarkable and quite sad ruling, the Ohio Supreme Court today in State v. Yarbrough, 104 Ohio St.3d 1, 2004-Ohio-6087 (Dec. 1, 2004) (available here) was forced to reverse a death sentence for lack of jurisdiction.  Here is the unanimous court's initial explanation of this peculiar and disconcerting result, which reverses a death sentence imposed in the gruesome murders of two Ohio college students:

This is a regrettable case in which the attorneys involved — the prosecutor, defense counsel, and even the trial judge — failed to exercise the level of assiduity we expect of participants in the criminal prosecution of a capital case. The General Assembly has not authorized an Ohio court of common pleas to exercise jurisdiction over the prosecution of a defendant for the crime of aggravated murder when, as here, the killing occurred in another state. As a result, it is our duty to reverse the convictions of aggravated murder and vacate the death sentences imposed on defendant-appellant, Terrell Yarbrough....

The genesis of the error that mandates this reversal appears to be the prosecutor’s failure to distinguish between the venue statute and the jurisdiction statute in drafting the indictment. Incorrectly relying on the language of the venue statute, both the state and the defense proceeded — indeed, through the appeal to this court — under the assumption that Ohio courts had subjectmatter jurisdiction to try Yarbrough for aggravated murder when the homicides did not occur in Ohio, but in Pennsylvania. The Ohio jurisdiction statute, however — because of the limited manner in which the General Assembly has drafted it — simply does not provide jurisdiction over homicides that occur outside the borders of Ohio. See R.C. 2901.11.

Nothing in the record reflects that the defense counsel or the trial court ever recognized this error — despite the fact that the prosecutor was seeking the death penalty. It was not until our review of the record and our request for supplemental briefing that the issue of the jurisdiction of the trial court over the aggravated-murder charges was addressed.... One would expect that those charged with the responsibility of participating in the prosecution of a defendant who is subject to the ultimate penalty would exercise more diligence. In failing to observe the General Assembly’s statutory rules of jurisdiction, these attorneys disserved the citizens of Ohio and, in particular, the victims of these abhorrent crimes.

Despite the time that has passed since the homicides were committed in Pennsylvania, despite overwhelming evidence that the defendant participated in the murders, and despite the anguish suffered by the family and friends of the victims, it is our responsibility as members of this court to preserve the integrity of the criminal-justice system in Ohio.

The Ohio Supreme Court did not have to order the release the defendant; Yarbrough was convicted of other crimes for which jurisdiction did lie in Ohio.  Here's how the Court tried to find some saving grace:

We do, however, affirm multiple other convictions, including convictions for robbery, burglary, and kidnapping, and a total prison sentence of 59 years for those crimes.  Moreover, we note that Yarbrough may yet be tried in an appropriate court for crimes relating to the deaths of the men he victimized. We are not aware of any precedent that would prevent Pennsylvania, whose law also provides for the death penalty, from trying appellant for the abhorrent murders of the two college students.

December 1, 2004 at 02:09 PM | Permalink

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» Death Sentence Reversed for Lack of Jurisdiction from ACSBlog: The Blog of the American Constitution Society
The Ohio Supreme Court today in State v. Yarbrough was forced to reverse a death sentence for lack of jurisdiction. Their decision reversed a death sentence imposed in the murders of two Ohio college students because of the prosecutor’s failure... [Read More]

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» Death Sentence Reversed for Lack of Jurisdiction from ACSBlog: The Blog of the American Constitution Society
The Ohio Supreme Court today in State v. Yarbrough was forced to reverse a death sentence for lack of jurisdiction. Their decision reversed a death sentence imposed in the murders of two Ohio college students because of the prosecutor’s failure... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 1, 2004 6:11:06 PM

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