By Alan Johnson
The Ohio Supreme Court leveled the playing field for DNA testing in murder cases today by ruling part of state law unconstitutional.
The court's 4-3 decision in a Portage County double-murder case resolves a discrepancy in state law which existed since 2003. Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor, who wrote the majority opinion, said state law violated the constitutional rights of inmates by setting up different appeals processes for those convicted and sentenced to death in murder cases and those convicted in murder cases but not sentenced to death.
"We find that providing only a discretionary appeal is not rationally related to the governmental purpose of expeditiously enforcing final judgments and, accordingly, the law does not meet the rational-basis test and violates both the federal and state equal-protection clauses," O'C onnor wrote.
The court cut out the unconstitutional part of the law, which means eligible capital offenders in the future will be permitted to appeal directly to the Ohio Supreme Court when a trial court denies a request for post-conviction DNA testing.
Dan Tierney, spokesman for Attorney General Mike DeWine, said DeWine supported the state law, but it will be up to the Portage
County prosecutor to decide if the Supreme Court decision's will be appealed.
While the ruling specifically effects Tyrone Noling, convicted and sentenced to death for killing Cora and Bearnhardt Hartig of Atwater in Portage County in April 1990, it also will apply to all future capital murder cases, according to Carrie Wood, an assistant state public defender and Noling's attorney.
"The Ohio Supreme Court took a much-needed step towards ensuring that all of Ohio's prisoners receive appellate review when their requests for DNA testing are denied. DNA testing has been responsible for 10 of Ohio's 56 exonerations and it is a critical tool for
Tyrone Noling, who has already served over twenty years on death row for a crime he did not commit," Wood said.
"Mr. Noling continues to seek DNA testing of key evidence, access to the national ballistics database, as well as results of DNA testing in his case which the state has refused to release. Our hope is Mr. Noling will be granted access to the information and testing needed to resolve his case fairly," Ms. Wood said.
The Portage County Common Pleas Court rejected Noling's request for DNA testing in the case in 2013. Noling is on death row but does not have a current execution date.
Justices Terrence O'Donnell, Judith French and Sharon Kennedy dissented from the majority decision, but only because they thought the whole statute, not just part of it, should be thrown out.
"The authority to sever the unconstitutional part of a statute does not give this court license to rewrite it by selectively deleting words to change the meaning of the language that the legislature enacted," O'Donnell wrote.
The decision is online.
(c)2016 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)