Currently, Dewitt McDonald is in jail at Richland Correctional Facility, although late last month a judge ordered his release.
The McDonald’s case dates back to a 1994 drive-by shooting in Sandusky that left a woman dead. Prosecutors claimed McDonald was in the car and charged him with aiding and abetting the crime. McDonald has maintained his innocence.
A jury nevertheless convicted McDonald in 1995 and he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for 20 years.
“Dewitt McDonald has now been incarcerated for 27 years for 28 years without even a parole hearing,” his attorney Kimberley Corral said.
And therein lies the controversy that led Erie County Judge Tygh Tone to issue a writ of habeas corpus on March 29 to McDonald. This order directed the authorities to release McDonald from prison. Attorney General Dave Yost’s office is appealing to keep him behind bars and sued Judge Tone in a state appeals court for good measure.
The state’s aggressive prosecution of the case is remarkable given the underlying facts of the case. In its federal relief applications, McDonald’s attorneys raise a number of grounds which they claim cast doubt on McDonald’s culpability. It is not clear, they claim, that he was in the car at the time of the shooting or even that bullets fired from the car killed the victim, Vivian Johnson. Prosecutors secured McDonald’s conviction largely through the testimony of a woman named Krista Harris.
At the first grand jury hearing, Harris said McDonald was with her at the time of the shooting and the grand jury did not recommend charges. Before the second grand jury, her story flipped and they returned an indictment.
A few years later, however, she told state investigators that county attorney Kevin Baxter coerced her into giving false testimony in the McDonald’s case and another by threatening her with criminal charges. She also alleged that Baxter forced her to have non-consensual sex in progress. Baxter’s brother, Edward, corroborated Harris’ story. Baxter himself denied it.
Yost’s office declined to comment on the McDonald’s case, “given ongoing litigation in the Erie County Court of Common Pleas, 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Ohio Supreme Court.”
The state’s central argument for why McDonald’s didn’t get a parole hearing comes down to arithmetic. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction argues that McDonald will not be eligible for a parole hearing until they have served 36 years because they are stacking sentences for other offenses in addition to the 20 years listed in its conviction documents.
“So all of a sudden his sentence is 36 years to life,” Corral said, “which was just a decision by an administrative agency. He wasn’t backed by any court order.
After filing a motion to clarify, the court ruled on McDonald’s side – he should be eligible for a parole hearing after 20 years. That was in November 2020. Subsequent appeals by the state to the Circuit and the Supreme Court were unsuccessful. By December last year, McDonald had still not been granted a parole hearing, so Judge Tone issued another order, this time ordering the parole board to hear his case “immediately”.
Instead, the state pushed the court to dismiss McDonald’s appeals. Two months later, Judge Tone issued the order to release McDonald.
In the current appeal, Yost’s office argues that the habeas writ is invalid because it originated in Erie County rather than Richland County where he was incarcerated. In response, Corral agrees that state law requires a habeas petition to be filed where an inmate is being held, but said McDonald was being held in the Erie County Jail at the time she filed. . The state maintains that he was only temporarily in Erie County for a court hearing. They also argue that the case cannot be transferred to Richland County.
“If you follow state logic,” Corral argued, “the state has sole authority to move prisoners from county to county. They could defeat every habeas ever filed by simply moving someone after the litigation is over.
“It cannot be the procedure intended by the legislator, and it is not what the courts have held in the past,” she continued.
As things stand, the McDonald’s case is a mess.
The circuit court, faced with the state’s appeal of Judge Tone’s habeas ruling and a writ of injunction against the judge, sidestepped the case and remanded the case to the trial court. for Tone to explain his decision or reverse it. Meanwhile, McDonald’s defense appealed to the state Supreme Court.
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