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Published: Wednesday, 10/7/2009

Highest court won't hear priest's case

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

More than three years after Toledo priest Gerald Robinson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the 1980 murder of a nun, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal.

The decision, released yesterday, means that the court decided against hearing the defense contentions that Robinson did not receive a fair trial because too much time had passed.

Although the high court's decision brings an end to Robinson's chances to directly appeal his conviction, his attorneys noted that other avenues remain open.

Specifically, a petition for post-conviction relief remains pending before Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Gene Zmuda, and the appeal can be brought into the federal court system.

“The United States Supreme Court did not address the merits of the case. The only decision they made was to not hear the case,” attorney John Donohue said yesterday.

“The legal issue is, ‘When is justice delayed, justice denied?' and sooner or later the U.S. Supreme Court is going to have to hear that issue. They just decided not to hear it now.”

Robinson, 70, is serving a 15-years-to-life prison sentence in Hocking Correctional Facility in Nelsonville, Ohio. He was arrested by Lucas County cold-case investigators in April, 2004, and was convicted and sentenced in May, 2006, for the murder of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl.

According to evidence at the trial, the 71-year-old nun had been choked nearly to death and then stabbed 31 times in the chest, neck, and face with a saber-shaped letter opener. Her partly naked body was found by another nun on the morning of April 5, 1980 — the day before Easter — on the floor of the sacristy, next to the chapel, of the former Mercy Hospital in Toledo.

Robinson, who retired in 2004 but is still a priest, is not eligible for parole until 2021.

His conviction was initially upheld by Ohio's 6th District Court of Appeals in July, 2008, and on Dec. 31, 2008, the state Supreme Court released its decision not to hear the case. Robinson's case was one of more than 1,800 cases nationwide that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear.

“Our case has been scrutinized, and we have passed muster at least thus far,” Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates said. She added that she will remain cautiously optimistic until the case has exhausted all appeals.

Mr. Donohue said that the appeal process is not quite half over. “We still have about 60 to 65 percent more to do,” he said.

The petition for postconviction relief pending before Judge Zmuda puts forward two constitutional claims.

One is that Robinson's trial lawyers did not provide him with effective assistance of counsel because they had in their possession “exculpatory evidence that was probative of his innocence that they didn't introduce,” Mr. Donohue said. Specifically, the motion claims that there was evidence that showed the possibility of a different time of death as well as evidence that pointed to a different perpetrator.

The second claim is that the state of Ohio withheld evidence from the defense, including police reports and witness statements from the original 1980 case.

Mr. Donohue said that the petition asks Judge Zmuda to vacate Robinson's conviction and order a new trial. The state has until early next month to respond to the claims.

Dean Mandros, chief of the criminal division for the prosecutor's office, said he is preparing a response to the petition. He added that he was not surprised by the Supreme Court's decision.

“It appears that Mr. Robinson will have to stay in custody a little longer,” he said.

Sgt. Steve Forrester of the Toledo Police Cold Case Unit, which reopened the investigation into Sister Margaret Ann's murder, said that the decisions of the various courts showed that “the system worked.”

“This is what we expected,” he said. “The jury, after a long trial, was able to reach this verdict after only a few hours. It was clear to everyone that sat through the trial that both the prosecution and defense did a superlative job, therefore guaranteeing that this defendant received a fair trial.”

Barbara Blaine, a former Toledoan who is founder and president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said that the recent decision “shows that no one is above the law.” She added that the price of this justice was the toll on the many people involved.

“At some point, I just hope all the appeals get put to rest,” she said.

Sister Margaret Ann's nephew, Lee Pahl of Edgerton, Ohio, said that he sat through nearly every day of the trial and watched as the evidence was presented.

He said yesterday that the Supreme Court's decision “upholds the job that the prosecutors did in presenting information to the jury.”

He acknowledged that the defense has the right to present additional information, but he believes everything done to date proves Robinson's guilt.

“Everything I've seen up until this point is convincing and it's clear that he did it,” he said.

The investigation and the subsequent trial, which was broadcast live on television, continues to receive national and international attention.

It will be profiled on an episode of Forensics: You Decide, airing at 10 p.m. Monday on the Investigation Discovery channel.

Contact Erica Blake at: eblake@theblade.com or 419-213-2134.



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