An Ohio court of appeals has upheld the conviction of Ryan Widmer for the bathtub murder of his wife in Warren County.
The case is available online. State v. Widmer, 2013-Ohio-62.
This is a second appeal from Ryan K. Widmer. In this appeal, he sought a new trial based on allegations that the prosecution failed to disclose information about false statements made by the lead investigator. Widmer also sought a new genetic DNA testing and raised some procedural arguments.
In 2011, after three jury trials, Widmer was found guilty of murdering his wife, Sarah Widmer, by forcibly drowning her in a bathtub in their home. He is serving a 15-year prison sentence.
Widmer’s first argument concerned the role if Lieutenant Jeffrey Braley. Lieutenant Braley was an officer with the Hamilton Township Police Department. He conducted much of the investigation, including collecting and processing evidence in the home. He was also present at the autopsy.
The defense later learned that Braley had lied on his application for employment. The trial judge, however, did not permit the defense to introduce this evidence at trial.
Widmer’s legal argument is that the United States Supreme Court, in a decision known as Brady, requires the state to turn over to turn over evidence in its possession that is both favorable to the accused and material to guilt or punishment.
Widmer argued that the evidence about Braley was important because it related to his trial strategy and the impeachment of Braley. In particular, Widmer suggested that if Braley had admitted to falsifying the employment application, the defense could have focused on incompetence and dishonesty on the integrity of the investigation. The court rejected this argument, reasoning that “Braley’s alleged misconduct, including falsifying the 1996 employment application, had no bearing on the issues of whether he was qualified to be a lieutenant detective and whether he was capable of properly handling the Widmer investigation.” The court explained this decision as follows:
the defense had ample opportunity to cross-examine Braley and other testifying officers about the orders that Braley gave at the scene, as well as his handling of the evidence. Similarly, nothing prevented Widmer from asking Braley additional questions about his actual training and experience in collecting evidence, dusting for fingerprints, and managing a crime scene investigation.
This included the fact that the jury heard testimony from multiple witnesses that the evidence from the tub had changed while it was in police custody.
The court rejected all of the arguments from the defense. The court found that Braley’s potential false statements – and possible perjury during a hearing on this matter – were not relevant to many of the issues at trial. The court found, for example, that the false employment application was not relevant to whether Braley only collected evidence that might help the prosecution, whether Braley’s lack of real police experience impacted his communication with the prosecution about possible charges, and whether Braley improperly influenced the coroner.
The court concluded:
There is no reasonable likelihood that knowledge by the jury that Braley lied about various credentials and whether he filled out the 1996 employment application could have affected its decision on the ultimate issue of whether Widmer was guilty of murdering Sarah. This conclusion is particularly compelling in light of the ample additional evidence supporting Widmer’s guilt, . . .
The court also upheld the trial courts decision to not permit Braley to be questioned about his application during the Widmer trial. The court explained that this information likely would not have affected the decision of the jury: “Braley was not on trial for fraud ormisconduct; Widmer was on trial for murder, and examining this part of Braley’s past would only lead to surprise, jury confusion, and a waste of time . . .”
The court of appeals also rejected some procedural and technical arguments raised by Widmer. In the end, the he court concluded that it remained confident in the Widmer verdict.
Widmer also argued that he should have been granted access to Sarah’s biological remains for the purpose of DNA testing in order to determine if she suffered from a congenital heart defect called Long QT Syndrome, which may have caused her to drown. The decision in this case rests on a close reading of the law in Ohio permitting DNA testing. In most instances, the court concluded that the law does not apply to this type of situation – instead, the law is aimed at situations where the DNA evidence can exclude the defendant as the person who committed the crime. The law, the court concluded, does not permit DNA testing of victims. The court also rejected an argument that the due process or equal protection clause of the Constitution requires such testing.
The court was critical of Widmer’s attorneys. At one point, the court suggested that attorneys might have misrepresented some of the evidence during oral argument. The court gave the attorneys the “the benefit of the doubt” but cautioned them about further such representations of the evidence bordering on “hyperbole.” The Widmer case is the type of high profile appeal where a person would benefit from having the most experienced appellate counsel.
Widmer’s case will now be considered by the Ohio Supreme Court, which must decide whether or not to hear further appeals.