Jon Craig

By Jon Craig, State House Reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer – January 21, 2011

For a quarter-century, Columbus criminal defense lawyer James D. Owen has been assembling an impressive record of not-guilty verdicts in major criminal cases in Columbus and throughout the state of Ohio. But when you initially meet Owen and observe his soft-spoken, analytical manner, you would never guess that his record of winning major criminal cases outshines that of other well-known lawyers. Yet Owen is no bare-knuckles brawler. Rather, Owen’s winning ways result from an ability to connect with juries. That is not to say that he is not a fierce opponent in the courtroom. In fact, his tactics are legendary and memorable.

Twenty-two years ago, while defending a Franklin County death penalty murder case, Owen called a firearms expert, John Miller, to the stand. Miller testified that the shotgun used in the killing was in such “miserable operating condition” that it could fire without anyone even pulling the trigger. To make his point, Owen surreptitiously loaded the shotgun with a blank cartridge and had Miller approach the jury, point the shotgun at the wall behind the jury, and cause it to “accidentally discharge.” When the gun fired, all 12 jurors dove for cover. “I believe this weapon is an accident waiting to happen,” Miller concluded. And the late Judge Dana A. Deshler instructed Miller when he left the witness stand to “be sure to take your weapon.” Owen used the courtroom theatrics to argue to the jury that it should not impose the death penalty for the homicide because the gun could have been fired accidentally, without the specific intent to kill. The jury agreed and spared his client’s life.

Over the past two decades, Owen hasn’t toned down. In March 2009, Owen defended Jeremy Turner in a Springfield, Ohio murder case. During Owen’s cross-examination of the case detective, Owen reenacted the shooting for the jury. Owen had already admitted to the jury that Turner shot and killed the alleged victim, but argued the killing was justified. To demonstrate his point, Owen left his seat, pulled on a blood-soaked mask, glared at the jury and screamed at the detective, “Did you know the so-called victim in this case was wearing a mask at the time of the shooting?” The detective, who had previously failed to disclose this fact, sheepishly responded, “Yes, I knew.’’ Two days later, the jury acquitted Turner of the homicide, and Turner walked out of the Springfield courtroom with Owen as a free man.

While researching this article, this reporter examined the background of dozens of well-known Central Ohio criminal defense attorneys, and submitted written questionnaires to 11 of them, asking them to list the cases where they obtained not guilty jury verdicts. By far, Owen’s record winning criminal cases surpasses his colleagues. This view is shared by local criminal defense attorney Kevin Durkin. Durkin, a former member of the Ohio Public Defender Commission, said, “I’ve looked at the statistics over the years. I’ve seen the cases. I’ve seen the results. He runs under the radar. But in terms of his win-loss record, he is clearly one of the best.”

Owen began to acquire his legal reputation in 1986 when he helped engineer the acquittal of Donald Hairston, the accused killer of prominent Columbus businessman John Meysenburg in his German Village florist shop. Meysenburg, a former candidate for Columbus City Council was an outspoken member of the Central Ohio Transit Authority. Hairston had endured two previous mistrials, including one that resulted from an attempted escape in which he was nearly gunned down by a Sheriff’s deputy after bolting from the courtroom. At Hairston’s third trial, Owen unearthed critical pieces of previously overlooked evidence and won Ohio’s first death penalty murder acquittal after Ohio reinstated the death penalty in 1981.

Two years later, Owen won a second acquittal in a death penalty murder case in the high-profile trial of Anthony Bernard Hollman. Owen then won two other serious felony cases for Hollman. After the acquittals, Hollman walked out of the Franklin County courtroom with Owen and remains a free man today.

In 1992, Owen won a third acquittal in a Franklin County death penalty murder case against William Berry II. Again, Owen’s client walked out of the courtroom as a free man, but this time did not remain so for long. Within 7-months Berry was charged with another serious felony, and this time Owen refused to represent him.

Since then, year after year Owen and his clients have won a series of serious felony jury trials the extent of which almost defies belief. In fact, no other Ohio attorney has received more jury acquittals in capital cases under Ohio’s 1981 death penalty law. But his clients aren’t all murder suspects: Owen handles all sorts of criminal matters from domestic violence or drunk driving to drugs and narcotics, as well as a large number of white collar charges.

Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Tim Horton presided over one of Owen’s recent jury trials, with a defendant who was charged with kidnapping and attempted rape. The jury returned not guilty verdicts. Horton said, “Owen has an uncanny ability to get into a jury’s head and connect with them about his theory of the case. He does it in jury selection, in opening statement, when examining witnesses, and again in closing argument. He does it persuasively; and he does it passionately. And that is why Owen wins so many of his cases.”

Owen’s best-known cases involve the wrongful convictions of Timothy Howard and Gary James, both of whom were convicted of murder and sentenced to death by Franklin County juries in early 1977. Both Howard and James were convicted in separate trials of the slaying of a 74-year-old security guard shot during a bank robbery on Dec. 21, 1976 at an Ohio National Bank branch located on East Main Street. Owen became involved more than 20 years later when James McCloskey, a Princeton-based Presbyterian minister contacted the Columbus lawyer and asked him to assist in reinvestigating the case. Owen was the lead attorney in what he described as a “six-year war” waged against Franklin County prosecuting authorities that ultimately concluded with the release of Timothy Howard in April 2003 and Gary James in July 2003, based on what Owen characterizes as “overwhelming evidence of innocence.” Due to Owen’s work on these cases, The Columbus Dispatch published a rare editorial on Feb. 26, 2003, praising his work and declaring, “more power to James Owen to make things right.” A jury in a civil lawsuit filed by Owen later declared on March 15, 2006, that Howard was factually innocent, and therefore entitled to compensation under Ohio’s wrongful imprisonment statute. Howard was subsequently awarded $2.5 million by the Ohio Court of Claims. James was later awarded $1.5 million. To date they remain the two highest wrongful imprisonment awards in Ohio history.

“He’s very bright, … very focused. Jim is fearless,” U. S. District Court Judge George C. Smith told The Columbus Dispatch. James McCloskey, the founder of a New Jersey-based nonprofit organization that has helped to free 44 wrongly convicted persons, has worked with Owen on legal cases since 1996, and characterizes him as “a superior legal strategist, one of the best I’ve ever seen.” In more than 25 legal proceedings we have conducted with the best lawyers in America (including Johnnie Cochran), McCloskey says, “I have never had another case proceed as flawlessly as I have with Owen.”

Franklin County Common Pleas Judge David Cain told The Columbus Dispatch that Owen fights for his clients like he is “defending his own mother.”

To illustrate how his clients often grow close to the attorney and come to respect him over the months they may pass together preparing for a trial, one client, Jeremy Turner named his son “Owen” after his lawyer roughly a year after he was acquitted. Like families that get along, Turner often calls Owen for advice about non-legal matters in life.

Turner, who had been in trouble several times before, didn’t want a lawyer like his previous ones who would just try to get him to “sell out by pleading guilty to a lesser charge.” Turner and his family wanted a lawyer who was willing to take the case to trial and who rarely loses. “I just wanted a lawyer who wins,” Turner said. He was serious. Turner and his family searched on the internet, interviewed numerous attorneys and finally selected Owen. “It cost my family a whole lot of money, but it was worth every penny.”

Every year, fewer and fewer homicide and other serious criminal cases go to trial. Criminal defense attorneys lose money if they go to trial. But Owen says he “loves going to trial,” and over the years, prosecutors have come to learn he is not bluffing.