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Published: Tuesday, 7/19/2005

Judge rules conviction of Toledo man was unjust

A federal magistrate has ruled that a Toledo man, whose criminal trial was halted during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was unfairly tried a second time.

In a ruling filed yesterday in U.S. District Court, Magistrate Judge Kenneth McHargh recommended granting a petition challenging the conviction of Lawrence L. Walls, who is serving an 11-year prison sentence for aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary.

If the decision of the Cleveland magistrate is accepted by Judge David Katz of Toledo, and barring an appeal from the Ohio attorney general, Walls would be released from the Toledo Correctional Institution and his 2001 conviction would be overturned.

Walls, 34, was in the second day of a jury trial in the Lucas County Common Pleas Court when terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. Judge Charles Wittenberg dismissed the jurors, sending them home before the courthouse was closed at noon. One of the jurors was a member of an Air Force unit.

Despite objections from the defendant's attorney, Sam Kaplan, Judge Wittenberg declared a mistrial later that day.

Walls was on trial for breaking into a house on May 18, 2001, in the 1300 block of Craigwood Avenue and attacking and robbing the woman who lives there.

In October, 2001, Walls waived being tried by a jury, and was found guilty of aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary in a bench trial before Judge Wittenberg.

Toledo attorney John Potts challenged the conviction on the double-jeopardy issue. He said the trial appears to have been the only one in the country to end in a mistrial that day.

"This is as strong a claim of double jeopardy [as] I have ever seen, and it looks like the federal court viewed it in the same way. We are glad that they did," Mr. Potts said.

He said an analysis of cases showed that defendants who were being tried on Sept. 11 appealed their convictions, claiming the judges should have discharged the juries and declared mistrials.

"Some of these cases worked their way through the appeals, and in every single case in which the issue of the attacks was raised, the court said it was not grounds for mistrial," he said.

The state attorney general, which represents the Lucas County prosecutor's office in the petition, has 10 days to file an objection to the magistrate's recommendation.



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