Cuyahoga County

Ohio Supreme Court reverses decision in Cleveland rape kit case that drew national attention


CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Ohio Supreme Court today unanimously reversed the decision of a Cleveland appeals court in a rape kit case being watched across the country.

At issue was whether it was fair to prosecute a Cleveland man for a rape he was first accused of in 1993.

Read the opinion here.

Police at the time knew Demetrius Jones was the suspect but he wasn't charged with rape and kidnapping until 2013, nearly 20 years later.

In an opinion written by Justice Judith French, the court said an improper standard was used by the Cleveland appeals judges in upholding the trial court's dismissal of the case.

Jones and his attorneys should have to prove the decades of delay caused actual – not just potential – harm to his defense, and then prove there was no reasonable justification for the delay, according the Ohio Supreme Court opinion.

Instead, the divided 8th District decision used a blurred standard that took into account the inaction of the police, whether the victim "cooperated" and other factors that it determined amounted to a fundamentally unjust prosecution of Jones.

The case will go back to the 8th District with instructions to use the proper standard in deciding the case.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, whose office made arguments in the case, said the court correctly clarified the rigorous standards a defendant must meet to challenge an indictment as being filed too late. The ruling affirmed law enforcement's ability to use DNA technologies in bringing criminals to justice, he said.

"This is a victory for all those seeking justice for victims of sexual assault," DeWine said in an email from a spokesman.

Cleveland Attorney Russell Bensing, who represents Jones, said he was not disappointed with the opinion. He was pleased that the court adopted a reasonable state standard for proving "actual prejudice" rather than a stringent federal standard the Attorney General's office promoted.

"I think that when this goes back (to the appeals court) I'm in a good place in making the argument that there was actual prejudice," Bensing said.

Jones indictment

County prosecutors asked a grand jury to indict Jones one day before a statute of limitations was to expire based on more recent testing of the victim's rape kit, which was among almost 5,000 in the county that hadn't been tested for DNA.

The case is one of many in which defense attorneys have argued that lengthy delay was unfair to their clients. Prosecutors, in most cases, have argued that the statute of limitations enacted by lawmakers was 20 years and it was unfair to victims to shorten that time frame.

Victim advocates and prosecutors in other cities and states were monitoring the case as a bellwether that could influence judicial decision-making in thousands of other cases across the country where the delayed testing of rape evidence is leading to charges in cases, often a decade or more after the crimes were reported.

Ilse Knecht, of the Joyful Heart Foundation, called the decision a victory for survivors whose cases have languished for years or decades.

"Ohio has been working for years to clear its backlog, dedicating significant resources to testing kits and prosecuting cases," said Knecht.

Joyful Heart, a non-profit that has pushed to test all rape kits, argued to reverse the decision in legal briefs along with Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN), the Ohio and National Alliances To End Sexual Violence, AEquitas: The Prosecutors Resource for Violence Against Women and Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association .

"Today's decision ensures that Ohio—and other jurisdictions engaged in rape kit reform—can keep a path to justice and healing open for survivors," Knecht said.

Bensing had argued the case should be dismissed because passage of time left Jones unable to properly defend himself. Two potential witnesses on his behalf – his mother and her boyfriend – died or could not be located.

Cleveland police closed the case soon after the report was made after they said they could not reach the victim. No evidence was collected from the scene, no photos were taken and the victim's 9-1-1 call was no longer available.

He also argued that finding Jones' DNA in the rape kit didn't amount to new evidence or help prove whether the 23-year-old victim victim was raped or had consensual sex with the victim as he told police in 1993.

Bensing said under today's the Ohio Supreme Court's decision, he has to prove that the death of Jones' mother harmed his case but he doesn't have to prove exactly what she might have said if she was available to testify.

The Cuyahoga County Prosecutors Office, in their appeal, argued the 8th District appeals panel used an improper standard in deciding the case – one that was new and tougher than previously used for determining whether a delay in prosecution harmed a defendant.

McGinty's office argued defendants should have to prove two critical points: the passage of time or lost evidence actually harms their ability to mount a defense, and that there was no justification for the delay in prosecution.

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