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US court weighs ex-death row inmate’s claim

ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINSMarch 11, 2015

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Dale Johnston was sent to death in 1984 for a double homicide he didn’t commit. He’s spent the years since his 1990 release trying to get back the life he lost.

The Ohio Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in Johnston’s latest attempt to win a wrongful imprisonment suit against the state.

Now 81, Johnston described his years under a death sentence as “hell on earth.”

“Death row’s the most horrible place anybody could be,” he said in a recent interview at his Ohio home. “Especially when you know they’re wanting to kill you for something you didn’t do.”

The case dates to 1982, after parts of the dismembered bodies of his stepdaughter, Annette Cooper Johnston, and her boyfriend, Todd Schultz, were discovered in a cornfield a few days after they went missing.

Johnston was indicted the following year and in 1984, a three-judge panel, based in part on testimony by a hypnotized witness, convicted Johnston of the killings and sentenced him to death on the theory he’d been having an affair with his stepdaughter and killed both in a jealous rage. An appeals court overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial, but a judge refused to allow the hypnotized witness’ testimony and other evidence and the case was dismissed.

In 2008, two men confessed to the crime, with one saying he killed the couple and the other that he helped dispose of the bodies.

Three years ago, a judge declared Johnston innocent, allowing him to seek compensation from the state, but an appeals court reversed the ruling.

Arguing a series of technicalities, the state says because Johnston failed in an earlier attempt to prove wrongful imprisonment, he isn’t eligible to try again.

Johnston’s attorney said with the real killer in prison, the state’s arguments help perpetuate a “monstrous inequity.”

Some justices seemed skeptical of the state’s efforts to fight Johnston, given the judge’s 2012 ruling in his favor.

“Why didn’t the state just suck it up and say look, ‘The prosecution of this thing was dead wrong, the investigation of it was wrong, it was a mess, it was a miscarriage of justice for Mr. Johnston’?” said Justice Paul Pfeifer.

Stephen Carney, Ohio deputy solicitor, emphasized the state’s position that the 2003 law under which Johnston sued doesn’t apply to cases before it took effect.

Johnston worked in construction and later as a handyman, and now lives quietly in a neat home with his wife, Roberta.

“If I am able to get everything that the state says I’m allowed to have, that’s still an insult when you figure what I lost,” Johnston said.

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