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Appeals court reverses conviction in 1982 murder case

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    At left Russell Adkins, who is on trial for the 1982 murder of Dana Rosendale, with his lawyer Ron Wingate Tuesday January 19, 2016, at the Wood County Courthouse in Bowling Green, Ohio.

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At left Russell Adkins, who is on trial for the 1982 murder of Dana Rosendale, with his lawyer Ron Wingate Tuesday January 19, 2016, at the Wood County Courthouse in Bowling Green, Ohio.

THE BLADE
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Concluding that Russell Adkins had not received a fair trial, Ohio’s 6th District Court of Appeals on Friday reversed the former Whitehouse man’s 2016 murder conviction in the 1982 death of Dana Rosendale.

The appeals court vacated the conviction of Mr. Adkins, 59, because of “actual prejudice from pre-indictment delay without justification.”

The appeals court cited the fact that several key witnesses — including then-Lucas County Coroner Dr. Steven Fazekas, who conducted Ms. Rosendale’s original autopsy — died before Mr. Adkins was indicted in 2015. Numerous reports, photographs, and pieces of evidence also were lost or destroyed in the 33 years between her death and his indictment.

“We find the volume of physical evidence available in 1982 but unavailable in 2015 is significant,” Judge Thomas Osowik wrote in the 58-page opinion, which also was signed by Judges Arlene Singer and James Jensen. “We also find the trial court’s evaluation of no actual prejudice from the lack of physical evidence to be misplaced.”

In 2015 and again in 2016, attorneys for Mr. Adkins filed motions to dismiss the case because of the 33-year pre-indictment delay, but both of those motions were denied by Wood County Common Pleas Judge Reeve Kelsey.

In January, 2016, Mr. Adkins’ first trial for the cold-case murder ended in a hung jury. In July of that year, he was re-tried and convicted of murder. Judge Kelsey sentenced him to life in prison with parole eligibility after 15 years.

Prosecutors argued at trial that Mr. Adkins had beaten Ms. Rosendale over the head. Mr. Adkins maintained the story he gave to Northwood Police at the time of her death.

He claimed that on the night of Sept. 5, 1982, he gave Ms. Rosendale, 19, of Northwood a ride home from a South Toledo night club when she fell out of his car on Tracy Road in Northwood. He said it had a faulty door latch. Ms. Rosendale died Sept. 11, 1982 at Mercy St. Charles Hospital.

Her manner of death was ruled “undetermined” by Dr. Fazekas in 1982 but was changed to “homicide” by Dr. Diane Scala-Barnett, a deputy Lucas County coroner, after Ms. Rosendale’s remains were exhumed in 2013 and re-examined.

Mr. Adkins’ trial focused heavily on the testimony of forensic experts, who presented differing opinions on Ms. Rosendale’s injuries.

Toledo attorney Neil McElroy, who represented Mr. Adkins at both of his trials, said the ruling was great news for his client, who attorneys were working to get released from prison.

“It is both rewarding and satisfying to see a court appreciate and have a willingness to enforce the constitutional protections that we’re all supposed to be afforded — that you have the right to a fair trial, you have a right to due process,” Mr. McElroy said. “The pre-indictment delay issue is connected to both a fair trial and due process, and before trial, throughout trial, and certainly in the years since, it has been clear to me Mr. Adkins could never receive a fair trial given all that had been lost or destroyed.”

Wood County Prosecutor Paul Dobson said his office would oppose any motions for release. He said they are studying the appellate opinion in expectation of asking the Ohio Supreme Court to review it.

“Any delay in any case results in some loss of memory, of evidence, but the law allows for the opportunity and recognition that in the most serious offenses, the answers may not come for years,” Mr. Dobson said. “There have been repeated cases of the 6th District upholding prosecutions that happened years after the event based on updated technology or a newer, more progressive look at the evidence by experts who have refined their craft over that intervening time period.”

He pointed to the case of the late Gerald Robinson, a former Catholic priest convicted in Lucas County in 2006 of the 1980 slaying of a nun. He said Mr. Adkins’ case is no different, “which is why we’re surprised and disappointed that the Court of Appeals would not uphold this in the same manner that it’s upheld other cases.”

The appeals court also concluded that Judge Kelsey should not have permitted former Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery to testify at Mr. Adkins’ trial. Ms. Montgomery, who was Wood County prosecutor in 1982, told the jury she wanted to prosecute Mr. Adkins for murder but couldn’t because the manner of death had been ruled “undetermined” and evidence was insufficient to go forward.

The appeals court ruled that her testimony provided no new facts and only her opinion that Mr. Adkins committed the murder.

“We find Ms. Montgomery’s testimony was irrelevant and inadmissible,” the appeals court wrote. “Even if her testimony was relevant, we find it was inadmissible because its minimal probative value was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, of confusion of the issues, and or misleading the jury.”

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

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