Perrysburg lawyer John P. Donahue, who appealed the 2006 murder conviction of the Rev. Gerald Robinson out of a firm belief in the Catholic priest's innocence, died Sunday at Hospice of Northwest Ohio in Perrysburg. He was 64.
"His whole purpose was to find out the truth," said Judge S. Dwight Osterud of Perrysburg Municipal Court. "That was his guiding principle -- to find the truth."
Mr. Donahue, who was treated at the Toledo Clinic Oncology Center before entering hospice, died of cancer, his friends said.
In nearly 30 years practicing law, Mr. Donahue was an assistant Wood County prosecutor, solicitor for Perrysburg Township, an instructor of criminal law at Bowling Green State University, and an acting judge in Perrysburg Municipal Court.
Mr. Donahue, born Nov. 8, 1946, in Brooklyn, N.Y., began his career as a teacher, having graduated from West Chester State College in Pennsylvania with a degree in history. He taught and coached basketball for eight years before enrolling in the University of Toledo's law school. He graduated from UT in 1981.
"He loved the law," said his wife, Kathleen, whom he married in 1977. "He also mentored his daughter and his nephew through law school."
He entered the high-profile case of Robinson in June, 2006, a month after the priest was convicted in Lucas County Common Pleas Court of the murder of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl, who was stabbed and strangled in the chapel of the former Mercy Hospital.
Mr. Donahue said he provided legal services for the appeals at no cost to Robinson.
"That is the way it is going to be. I won't accept any public money if it was offered,'' he said in an interview after he notified the Ohio 6th District Court of Appeals that he would represent the priest.
Mr. Donahue said Robinson called him from prison and asked him to handle his appeal.
Mr. Donahue said he was attracted to the trial by watching the gavel-to-gavel television coverage on Court TV and that he came away with the opinion that the jury sent an innocent man to prison.
Mr. Donahue also said he would pay out of his own pocket the estimated $15,000 to transcribe the testimony.
Toledo lawyer Rick Kerger was part of Mr. Donahue's team on the Robinson appeal. He said Mr. Donahue asked him to join the case. "At first he was beside himself because he couldn't get a transcript of the trial fast enough, so he wrote the brief by watching the trial on Court TV video," Mr. Kerger said. "I never heard of anyone doing it before."
Mr. Kerger, who continues to work on Robinson's appeal, said Mr. Donahue transferred the case files to him several months ago when he became too ill to work.
Mr, Kerger and Mr. Donahue were also opponents, a situation Mr. Kerger said he relished because, "I would prefer to be up against a good lawyer than I would a bad lawyer.
"He focused like a laser, and he was just as bright as one," he said.
The two butted professional heads in the annexation of Perrysburg Township land into Rossford. Mr. Donahue was the township solicitor and Mr. Kerger represented the investment banks that held the bonds for the ill-fated arena proposal.
John Hrosko, Perrysburg Township administrator, said Mr. Donahue handled the township's legal work part time from 2001 to 2009, when the township hired a full-time solicitor,
"John did an excellent job for the township," Mr. Hrosko said.
Mr. Donahue guided the Fed Ex project in its move from Toledo to Perrysburg Township. That move ruffled feathers in Toledo because of the loss of jobs and taxes, but a deal was worked out with a tax- sharing plan between the two entities. "John was a fighter. When the township hired him, they wanted a fighter," Mr. Hrosko said.
Although tenacious in court, Mr. Donahue was not a person to sacrifice his values, the township administrator said. "I think anyone who hired him was looking for a fighter, but he was a gentleman who would go the distance and do everything he could to be a winner. "
Paul Dobson, current Wood County prosecutor, called him well respected and tenacious saying Mr. Donahue was always well prepared and was a formidable foe.
"He was one of those people we knew we had to raise or level if we wanted to win in opposition with him," Mr. Dobson said. "You knew that that was who you were up against, and yet you had a lot of respect because he was a decent man."
Linda Holmes, an assistant Wood County prosecutor, said she knew him briefly when she began working as a clerk in the prosecutor's office while attending law school. They later remained in contact, she said, through occasional court cases, where his thoroughness in preparation for cases was well known.
"If you went up against John, you knew it was 'Game on,' " she said "and you had best bring your A game. He believed in his cases. It was great if you were on John's side."
Wood County Sheriff Mark Wasylyshyn credited Mr. Donahue's legal skills in getting Perrysburg City Council to override the state law barring city employees from running for elected office outside their city. Mr. Wasylyshyn was a police sergeant at the time.
"Without his great work, I would not be sheriff today," Mr. Wasylyshyn said. "He was very articulate and a gentleman."
He used his knowledge of law and interest in teaching to work with Judge Osterud, who founded a program in Perrysburg in 2002 to expose high school students to the law in mock trial competitions.
Mr. Donahue was the first coach for the Perrysburg Court Law and Government Explorer Post 2306, a subgroup of the Boy Scouts that includes boys and girls. The program began with a dozen students and now numbers about 35, the judge said.
"He's really been an inspiration to the kids. He was a wonderful mentor," Judge Osterud said.
Mr. Donahue is survived by his wife, Kathleen, daughters, Alison Kehner and Sarah Donahue, mother, Helen Donahue, sister, Eileen Zwart, brother, Kevin, and two grandchildren.
Visitation will be from 3 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Witzler-Shank Funeral Home, Perrysburg. The funeral will be private.
Memorials are suggested to the Perrysburg Court Law and Explorer Post 2306 or Hospice of Northwest Ohio.
Contact Jim Sielicki at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 419-724-6050.
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