It’s Official: Man Was Wrongfully Convicted

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By  Randy Ludlow

The Columbus Dispatch, Thursday November 1, 2012.  (The same story also ran on October 31, 2012 under the heading “Man who served on Death Row declared wrongfully imprisoned”).

After spending seven years on Death Row for a pair of now-three-decade-old murders that he didn’t commit, Dale Johnston feels he finally has pocketed a piece of long-denied justice.

A judge ruled yesterday that the 79-year-old man was wrongfully imprisoned for the dismemberment slayings of his stepdaughter and her fiance, clearing the way for Johnston to seek compensation from the state.

The ruling by Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Richard A. Frye came in Johnston’s third attempt to win recognition that he wrongly served time for the 1982 slayings that horrified Hocking County shortly before Halloween.

Attorneys general had fought Johnston over the years in his bid to be declared innocent or wrongfully imprisoned, a ruling required before he could turn to the Ohio Court of Claims to seek monetary damages.

“It’s been a long time coming. It’s been delayed so long, it takes the edge off of it,” Johnston said last night from his Grove City home. “This is about more than the money.

“The public has known for a long time I didn’t do the crime, but the state continued to try to prevent me from being judged wrongly convicted. Everyone else knew it. The state just wouldn’t accept it,” he said.

Johnston was sentenced to die in the electric chair in 1984 for the shooting deaths of Annette Cooper, 18, and Todd Schultz, 19, whose bodies were cut up and buried in a cornfield and thrown into the Hocking River. The shaky case against him toppled on appeal and he was freed in 1990.

A drifter and drug addict, Chester McKnight, confessed in 2008 to slaughtering the couple and was sentenced to life in prison, reviving Johnston’s claim for compensation.

However, Johnston could not use McKnight’s conviction to support a finding that he was innocent. That avenue was barred as a result of a ruling rejecting his innocence in one of his prior attempts to be cleared of the crimes.

A person cannot be declared wrongfully imprisoned if it can be shown he committed other crimes during the time of their original felony convictions. The office of Attorney General Mike DeWine argued that Johnston was guilty of sexually molesting his slain stepdaughter, a claim rejected by Frye.

Frye granted Johnston’s request for summary judgment after previously denouncing the state’s interpretation of wrongful-imprisonment laws as “illogical … absurd (and) mean-spirited.”

A spokesman for DeWine said the attorney general’s office was reviewing Frye’s ruling.

Johnston’s attorney, Benjamin A. Tracy of Columbus, said his client never molested his stepdaughter and certainly didn’t kill her and her fiance.

“He absolutely is innocent,” Tracy said. “Justice absolutely demanded that he be declared wrongfully imprisoned.”

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