Priest's conviction in '80 murder upheld

Robinson's defense says it will continue appeals

2/21/2013
BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Richard Kerger, attorney for Gerald Robinson, said Wednesday that the fight for a new trial will not end with this decision.
Richard Kerger, attorney for Gerald Robinson, said Wednesday that the fight for a new trial will not end with this decision.

Nearly seven years after he went to prison for the 1980 murder of a nun, Gerald Robinson’s fight to have his conviction overturned continues to move through the courts.

In the latest ruling, the Ohio 6th District Court of Appeals rejected the Toledo priest’s claims that prosecutors withheld key documents from his defense attorneys and that his defense attorneys failed to focus on a known serial killer as the more likely suspect in the death of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl. The court affirmed the April, 2011, finding of Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Gene Zmuda, who denied Robinson’s petition for postconviction relief.

Richard Kerger, attorney for Robinson, said Wednesday that the fight for a new trial will not end with this decision.

“We will be appealing the decision to the Ohio Supreme Court and doing so in the next week or two,” he said.

Once the state appeals are exhausted, he said, the case could move to U.S. District Court on postconviction-relief claims.

In his appeal, Mr. Kerger contended Robinson’s trial attorneys failed to pursue serial killer Coral Eugene Watts as an obvious suspect in Sister Margaret Ann’s murder and said the state withheld key documents from the defense, including 139 pages of documents misfiled by Toledo police.

“We have reviewed the previously undisclosed documents and reviewed again the entire trial transcript and evidence,” the appeals court wrote. “After such review, we cannot say that the undisclosed evidence was material in the sense that the outcome of the trial would have been different.”

Similarly, the appeals court said trial attorneys had not erred in failing to focus on Watts — who had strangled and stabbed women similar to the way in which Sister Margaret Ann was killed — as a more likely suspect in the killing.

“Reviewing the trial transcript and evidence admitted at trial, as well as the discovery documents pertaining to Watts, we cannot say the trial counsel was ineffective in failing to specifically pursue the theory that Coral Watts was the murderer,” the appeals court wrote. “The strategy of focusing on the alleged shoddy 1980 investigation while implying that Father [Jerome] Swiatecki or an unknown individual committed the murder was sound.”

Sister Margaret Ann, who was a day short of 72 when she was killed, was choked to the edge of death, then stabbed 32 times in the chest, neck, and face in the sacristy of the former Mercy Hospital. Robinson, now 74, was convicted of her murder by a jury in May, 2006, and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

J. Christopher Anderson, an assistant Lucas County prosecutor, said the appellate decision was expected.

“We anticipated that would be the outcome on it,” he said. “Coral Watts was a red herring.”

He said investigators looked at Watts at the time of Sister Margaret Ann’s murder and didn’t find any evidence to connect him to the slaying.

Mr. Anderson said prosecutors are convinced the right man is in prison. “We stick by the verdict,” he said.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-213-2134.