Eight years after his conviction for the 1980 murder of a Catholic nun at the former Mercy Hospital, a Toledo priest is asking a federal court to overturn that conviction and release him from prison.
In a petition for writ of habeas corpus filed in U.S. District Court, Toledo lawyer Rick Kerger raises four claims for relief on behalf of Gerald Robinson, now 76, including what Mr. Kerger calls an unjustified 24-year delay in charging Robinson with the murder.
“The State of Ohio manufactured a case against Father Robinson in 2004, where it admittedly had none in 1980, by simply hiring expert witnesses to reinterpret circumstantial evidence, all of which was available in 1980, by withholding exculpatory evidence, and by selectively presenting other 1980 testimony,” the petition states.
Robinson was convicted in 2006 in Lucas County Common Pleas Court of murder for the slaying of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl on the day before Easter 1980 and the day before her 72nd birthday.
Robinson was sentenced to life in prison with parole eligibility after he served 15 years.
The petition was filed Thursday in Columbus in the court’s Southern District where Robinson is incarcerated at the Hocking unit of the Southeastern Correctional Institution. The case was transferred Friday to the Northern District where it was randomly assigned to Judge James Gwin in Cleveland.
Habeas corpus, which literally means to produce the body, is a way for prisoners to challenge the legality of federal laws that were applied at their trial. It requires the defense to assert that federal constitutional issues were misapplied or unreasonably applied in the state court.
Mr. Kerger argues in the petition that in the 24 years before Robinson was indicted for the crime, some key witnesses died, and some physical evidence was lost. The only new evidence, he contends, that emerged between 1980 when the homicide occurred and 2004 when Robinson was indicted was DNA testing that resulted in the profile of an unknown male and definitively excluded Robinson.
“It is important to note that in 1980, when these witnesses were alive, when all of the physical evidence was available, and when memories were clear, the Lucas County, Ohio Prosecuting Attorney evaluated all of that evidence,” the petition states. “No indictment was returned against Father Robinson or anyone else.”
Mr. Kerger said the delayed prosecution is Robinson’s strongest argument.
“That’s the one that has the most chance of success in my opinion. It also is the one that has the most evidence of prejudice,” he said. “The only forensic pathologist who viewed the body was dead by the time they got around to bringing the claim.”
He also argues in the petition that Robinson received ineffective assistance from his attorneys, that the defense team failed to immediately file a motion to dismiss the indictment based on the 24-year delay and failed to focus on a known serial killer as a suspect in the death of Sister Margaret Ann.
The petition also contends that Robinson was denied his right to due process because prosecutors failed to disclose “exculpatory material in its possession,” including numerous statements made to police in 1980 and various police reports.
Although he had not read the petition, J. Christopher Anderson, an assistant Lucas County prosecutor who was co-lead counsel for the state on the Robinson case, said Robinson lost all of his state appeals, and he did not anticipate a different outcome in federal court.
“It has been litigated at the state level, and they’re asking for a habeas corpus review on it, which is not unanticipated,” Mr. Anderson said.
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