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Published: Tuesday, 1/10/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Priest's request for new murder trial is denied

Robinson says misfiled reports could have influenced verdict

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR
Gerald Robinson's request for a new murder trial has been denied. Gerald Robinson's request for a new murder trial has been denied.
BLADE FILE PHOTO Enlarge

Gerald Robinson, the Toledo Catholic priest convicted in 2006 of the 1980 murder of a nun, was denied a new trial in a ruling Monday by Judge Gene Zmuda of Lucas County Common Pleas Court.

The 73-year-old priest is serving a 15-years-to-life sentence for killing Sister Margaret Ann Pahl on April 5 — Holy Saturday — in 1980.

His amended petition for post-conviction relief contends that police reports from 1980 that had been misfiled and discovered by chance in 2009 could have affected the 2006 trial and verdict.

Judge Zmuda rejected the argument, saying that the 136 documents did not contain anything that would have helped Robinson's defense strategy or prove the priest's innocence.

"Had counsel known of the additional documents, they would have merely possessed more of the same type of information, already disclosed and considered in preparing for trial," Judge Zmuda said.

The ruling comes a day after Robinson professed his innocence in his first television interview from behind bars, broadcast Sunday on Discovery I.D. Channel's On the Case with Paula Zahn. His one previous prison interview was with the Columbus Dispatch in 2009.

Regarding the amended petition, the judge said Robinson "appears to argue the improbability of his guilt, based on his status as a Roman Catholic priest, ignoring the evidence of his guilt and grasping at speculation made possible by the previously undisclosed documents. …"

The judge said the petition fails to raise reasonable doubts about the "overwhelming evidence" that proved Robinson's guilt, including:

Trial testimony that the priest's saber-shaped letter opener was the murder weapon.

Robinson admitted lying to police.

Three separate witnesses placed him at the scene of the murder while he claimed to be in his apartment at the former Mercy Hospital, where the slaying occurred.

Judge Zmuda said literary sleuth Sherlock Holmes offers an appropriate analysis: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

"What remains in this case after discarding the impossible," Judge Zmuda wrote, "is the conclusion that a Catholic priest murdered a Catholic nun in the sacristy of the hospital chapel, during the holiest of seasons in the Catholic Church."

Rick Kerger, one of Robinson's attorneys, said he plans to appeal.

"Obviously the judge made a thoughtful decision, and while I disagree, we will respect it and consider our response," Mr. Kerger said.

The main focus of Robinson's petition was that the missing 1980 documents contained a number of reports mentioning an unidentified black male in the hallways of the former hospital, where Sister Margaret Ann was killed in the chapel's sacristy. The nun had been choked nearly to death and then stabbed 32 times in the face, neck, and chest. The killer left the 71-year-old nun's body on the sacristy floor with her habit pulled up and her undergarments pulled down.

Robinson, who had been a chaplain at Mercy at the time, asserted in the petition that the unidentified black male in the hallway could have been serial killer Coral Eugene Watts, who confessed to a dozen killings in Texas and Ohio.

Watts, who died of cancer in a Michigan prison in 2007 at age 53, is suspected in the murders of up to 80 women and was known to have been in the Detroit-Ann Arbor area around the time of Sister Margaret Ann's slaying. Watts strangled and repeatedly stabbed his victims, leaving many with their blouses pulled up.

Judge Zmuda said in his ruling, however, that Robinson's attorneys in 2006 were aware of Watts as a possible suspect in Sister Margaret Ann's murder but did not pursue it as a defense strategy.

"Trial counsel acknowledged they knew of and investigated the possibility of Coral Eugene Watts or other ‘black males' in the vicinity of the murder, but ultimately rejected — as a trial tactic — relying on such arguments," he said.

Judge Zmuda noted that police testified of dissimilarities between Watts' modus operandi and Sister Margaret Ann's murder, saying Watts typically stalked young women and murdered them outside of buildings.

Robinson's amended petition for post-conviction relief was filed as a "collateral argument" if direct appeals were unsuccessful. It was put on hold and then reactivated in January, 2009, after the Ohio Sixth District Court of Appeals upheld his conviction and the Ohio Supreme Court chose not to hear the case.

The U.S. Supreme Court in October, 2009, also declined to hear Robinson's case.

The appeals process on the amended petition could take another 15 years or more, attorneys said Monday.

Robinson, a Toledo native who was ordained a priest in 1964, was barred from ministry by Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair in 2006. He has not been laicized by the Vatican and remains a retired priest while incarcerated at the Hocking Correctional Facility in Nelsonville, Ohio.

Contact David Yonke at: dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.



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