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Published: Sunday, 1/18/2009

Court reverses conviction in 1991 slaying

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

BOWLING GREEN - It took 13 years for prosecutors to indict Ralph Doren in the 1991 murder of Deana Meeks and almost two more before he was convicted of slashing the Northwood woman's throat.

On Friday, the 6th District Court of Appeals reversed Doren's conviction for aggravated murder and ordered that he receive a new trial.

The judges said the trial judge should have declared a mistrial when prosecutors played for jurors an unredacted tape of a telephone conversation in which Doren spoke of a polygraph examination.

"I strongly disagree with the court's decision. ... Unfortunately, it's not my call," Wood County Prosecutor Paul Dobson said yesterday. "We do the best that we can and fight as hard as we can and then it gets taken out of our hands."

From the beginning, Miss Meeks was considered an innocent victim, someone who had simply gotten in the way when a burglar ransacked the Lester Avenue home she shared with her mother, Joyce Baird, and her mother's boyfriend, Boyd "Smitty" Smith.

The investigation quickly centered on associates of Mr. Smith, and, in 1993, Craig Magrum and his brother, Todd Magrum, were indicted for her murder. Those charges were dropped in January, 1994, because of what then-Prosecutor Alan Mayberry called problems with the evidence.

Doren's name also came up early in the investigation.

Prosecutors contended during his two-week trial that Doren, who previously worked with Mr. Smith at Dave White Chevrolet in Sylvania, went to his house to steal money while Mr. Smith was at work and Ms. Baird was away at the couple's lake cottage in Michigan. Once in the house, though, Doren encountered Miss Meeks and killed her so she would not call police, prosecutors said.

Because Wood County Common Pleas Judge Reeve Kelsey ruled prior to Doren's trial that all references to a polygraph test could not be admitted as evidence, the judge advised the jury to disregard the phone conversation that was played during the trial. After a break in which prosecutors redacted some portions of the tape, prosecutors then played a new tape for jurors.

Still, jurors submitted seven questions in writing to the court that concerned polygraph tests, and Judge Kelsey again advised them that those statements had been stricken from the record "and must be treated as though you never heard them."

"While a jury is presumed to follow instructions this jury demonstrated sustained curiosity about a polygraph test by submitting seven written questions despite the first curative instructions," the appeals court wrote. "It is unlikely the second curative instruction removed the error's taint from the jurors' minds."

Mr. Dobson said he is considering appealing the ruling to the Ohio Supreme Court. He agreed the tape played for the jury should have been edited, but said he did not believe the statement made by Doren on the tape was inflammatory.

"The reference was Ralph Doren indicating he had told police he would take a polygraph," Mr. Dobson said. "How that translates into something the jury could've used to convict him, I find it difficult to reconcile."

In fact, the appeals court pointed out that the records provided to the court did not contain the original tape.

In the lone dissenting opinion, Judge Mark Pietrykowski said Doren's attorney had the responsibility to support the argument with evidence from the record. "Absent evidence of what the jury actually heard, we cannot say that the trial court abused its discretion when it denied [Doren's] motion for a mistrial."

Doren's attorney, Debra Kovac Rump, could not be reached for comment.

For now, Doren will not go anywhere. Although Judge Kelsey sentenced him to life in prison with parole eligibility after 20 years for Miss Meeks' murder, he also is serving an unrelated 30 to 60-year prison sentence for a 1993 rape conviction in Michigan.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-724-6129.



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