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Published: Tuesday, 4/24/2012

Priest again appeals murder conviction

Withholding of key documents alleged

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR
Gerald Robinson is seeking postconviction relief, which, unlike a direct appeal, allows the court to consider information other than what was in the trial. He was convicted by a jury in May, 2006, of killing a nun and is serving a 15-year-to-life sentence at Hocking Correctional Facility in southern Ohio. Gerald Robinson is seeking postconviction relief, which, unlike a direct appeal, allows the court to consider information other than what was in the trial. He was convicted by a jury in May, 2006, of killing a nun and is serving a 15-year-to-life sentence at Hocking Correctional Facility in southern Ohio.
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Toledo priest Gerald Robinson has again asked the Ohio 6th District Court of Appeals to toss out his 2006 conviction for the 1980 murder of a nun, saying the state withheld key documents and his trial attorneys failed to adequately pursue "the most obvious" suspect, serial killer Coral Eugene Watts.

The latest filing states that Robinson's trial attorneys mistakenly thought Watts was in prison on April 5, 1980, when Sister Margaret Ann Pahl was found brutally slain in the sacristy of the former Mercy Hospital near downtown Toledo. But Watts was a free man "in his killing spree or 'on a rampage' at the time," living in Michigan about 40 miles from Toledo, the appeal states.

The appeals court in January, 2008, rejected Robinson's direct appeal, and, 11 months later, the Ohio Supreme Court declined to hear the case. Robinson then began pursuing an amended petition for postconviction relief, which, unlike a direct appeal, allows the court to consider information other than what was included in the trial.

The new filing asserts that Sister Margaret Ann's murder was "eerily similar" to many of the slayings committed by Watts, who died of prostate cancer in a Michigan prison in 2007 at age 53.

Watts confessed to killing a dozen women in Texas and is suspected in more than 80 murders. All of his victims were women and many were strangled and stabbed repeatedly. Many of Watts' victims "had their blouses pulled up to their necks" but were not sexually assaulted, according to the appeal.

Sister Margaret Ann, who was slain the day before her 72nd birthday, had been choked to the edge of death and then stabbed 32 times in the chest, the neck, and the face.

She was found on the floor of the sacristy of the former Mercy Hospital on Holy Saturday with her habit pulled up to her chest and her girdle and hose pulled down around her ankles. Although she had not been raped, experts testified at the trial that she had been penetrated with a cross or similar item.

The priest's latest filing, dated April 16, also said the state failed to provide his attorneys with a number of police reports that included information from witnesses who said they saw an unidentified black man in his 20s in Mercy's hallways around the time of the murder. Watts, an African-American, was 27 years old when Sister Margaret Ann was slain and fit the general height and weight description of the man seen in the hallways.

The new filing also said 139 pages of police reports from the 1980 investigation had been misfiled and were not available to Robinson until they were found by chance in 2009. If the priest's defense attorneys had been aware that the misfiled reports contained a "panoply" of witnesses saying they saw a black man who matched Watts' description in Mercy's hallways on the day of the murder, it would have changed the trial's outcome, the appeal asserts.

According to the appeal, prosecutors also failed to provide Robinson's trial attorneys with a psychological profile of the murderer that forensic psychologist Harley Stock had provided at the state's request more than a year and a half after Sister Margaret Ann's murder.

Richard Kerger, who filed Robinson's appeal, said prosecutors gave the priest's trial attorneys only a one-paragraph statement saying a Toledo detective had met with Mr. Stock in 1981 but did not disclose details of the findings, including Mr. Stock's assessment that the nun's killer was "a non-white, ill-educated 20-something male" -- a description that fit Watts but not Robinson.

"[Mr. Stock] could have described the methodology of Watts and raised for the jury the strong likelihood that it was Watts, not the diminutive Catholic priest who had never before or since committed any crime, who was the murderer of Sister Pahl," Robinson's appeal states.

Nobody was arrested for Sister Margaret Ann's murder until 2004, when Lucas County cold-case detectives arrested Robinson at his home next to a Toledo police substation. Robinson was convicted by a jury in May, 2006, and is serving a 15-year-to-life sentence at Hocking Correctional Facility in southern Ohio. The priest, who turned 74 on April 14, is eligible for a parole hearing in September, 2016.

In April, 2011, Judge Gene Zmuda of Lucas County Common Pleas Court denied Robinson's petition for postconviction relief, saying trial attorneys 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 also noted that police had testified of dissimilarities between Watts' modus operandi and Sister Margaret Ann's murder, saying Watts typically stalked young women and murdered them outside buildings.

J. Christopher Anderson, an assistant Lucas County prosecutor, said the state will review Robinson's latest appeal and file an appropriate response with the appeals court.

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



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