The Ohio Supreme Court will hear the State of Ohio v. Blanton, a case involving a Manchester man who was found guilty of rape, kidnapping, felonious assault and misdemeanor assault.
In 2016, Denny Blanton of Manchester was found guilty of raping a local high school student. According to the court testimony, while driving his white pick-up truck on a rural country road, Blanton approached the victim who was running and asked for directions to a business. Blanton then subdued by the victim then took her to a remote location and raped her before returning her to the area where she was first approached. Blanton then let her go. While awaiting trial, Blanton was also charged with additional charges steaming from an altercation with another inmate.
In his appeal to the Ohio Fourth Appellate District Court, Blanton argues that the trial court erred and abused its discretion by denying his postconviction petitions without holding an evidentiary hearing. On direct appeal, Blanton contended that he was entitled to a new trial for several reasons: (1) the trial court made several rulings that resulted in constitutional violations; (2) the trial court erred in making other evidentiary rulings; and (3) he received ineffective assistance from his trial counsel.
The first claim asserted in Blanton’s postconviction petition was that his attorneys performed deficiently by failing to include him in the decision-making process regarding his defense of consent.
“During our first meeting, I told Mr. [Tyler] Cantrell that I had lied to the Sheriff and the Prosecutor’s Office investigator about my contact with [the victim], the alleged minor victim. During the questioning following my detention and arrest, I had told law enforcement officials several times that I did not engage in sexual conduct with her. I explained to Mr. Cantrell that I had not been truthful with the investigators about this subject because I was afraid that [my girlfriend at the time] would learn about the affair. I told Mr. Cantrell that [the victim] and I did have sexual relations and that [the victim]. was a willing participant. I asked Mr. Cantrell to notify the Prosecutor’s Office about my desire to tell the truth and to request an opportunity for me to submit to a second interview. Mr. Cantrell disagreed with me and did not contact the prosecutor,” stated Blanton’s affidavit.
Blanton argues that when defense counsel failed to inform the jury in the opening statement that Blanton conceded the occurrence of sexual conduct, but instead focused on the State’s burden of proving sexual conduct, this conveyed a false impression to the jury and resulted in significant prejudice to his defense. Blanton concludes his counsel’s strategy created the impression that he had changed his entire line of defense only after hearing the State’s evidence. Blanton argues under the circumstances of this case, Blanton’s counsel’s refusal to honor his wishes regarding the defense of consent rose to the level of a violation of his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
“The defendant’s arguments do not overcome the strong presumption that counsel’s conduct is within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance. Strickland v. Washington (citation omitted.) Further the defendant’s argument that he was prejudiced by this is speculative at best and does not show a reasonable probability that the outcome would have been different. Strickland, supra. * * * Moreover, the defendant was aware at trial of the content of his attorney’s opening statement and could have raised this argument on appeal. The defendant argues that he could not litigate this on appeal because his statements that he told his attorney prior to trial that he had lied were not part of the record. However, his trial testimony regarding consent and his reasons for lying to the police were in the record, so that the defendant could have raised this argument on appeal,” stated the Fourth District of Appeal.
Blanton’s second claim his postconviction petition was that given the nature of the relationship between the trial judge and the alleged victim’s father. According to the appeal, Blanton was concerned about the risk of bias and instructed his attorneys to take all necessary measures to remove the trial judge from the case. Blanton asserted that his attorneys knew that the trial judge’s wife was employed by the same local school district where the alleged victim’s father was employed as superintendent and even held a supervisory position over the judge’s wife.
“My attorneys told me that there is a procedure for filing an affidavit in the Ohio Supreme Court to disqualify the trial judge due to bias or prejudice, I asked them to file such an affidavit because I did not feel I could get a fair trial before Judge Spencer. They said they could not file the affidavit due to personal reasons. During the trial, Judge Spencer made comments, some of which were not recorded, and rulings that confirmed my belief that he was biased against me and felt my defense of consent was based on perjured testimony,” stated Blanton’s affidavit.
“The defendant’s allegations are based on information that was available to him prior to trial. In fact, defense counsel filed a motion to recuse the trial judge on this basis. In his affidavit, the defendant indicates that his trial counsel informed him that there was a procedure to seek disqualification of a judge through the Ohio Supreme Court, that he requested that they seek disqualification of the judge, and that they refused to do so for personal reasons. Thus, the defendant was aware of all the information upon which he bases his claim prior to trial and could have raised this issue on appeal. The defendant argues that he could not have raised this issue on appeal because his affidavit alleging that counsel refused to file an affidavit of disqualification for personal reasons was not in the record. However, the motion to recuse the judge and its denial were in the record. Thus, there was sufficient information in the record,” stated the Fourth District of Appeals.
The third claim in Blanton’s postconviction petition was that: (1) his counsel failed to call at trial an expert who had examined the victim’s running shorts; and, (2) his counsel failed to consult with a medical expert to counter testimony given by the State’s expert, Dr. Makaroff.
“Additionally, the defendant argues that counsel hired an expert in microscopy and microchemistry, but failed to call this expert at trial. The defendant states that the expert examined the victim’s running shorts and opined that the soil stains on her shorts were caused by contact with a muddy object, and that this opinion contradicted the state’s theory that the stains were from the defendant pushing the victim down. The court questions whether these are two contradictory assertions. However, generally, decisions as to whether to call a witness, including the failure to call an expert, are considered trial strategy and do not constitute ineffective assistance of counsel. In re B.C.S. (citation omitted.) * * * Furthermore, the defendant complains that his attorney failed to consult with a medical expert regarding the testimony of Dr. Makaroff that the victims genital bruising and bleeding were consistent with sexual assault. Again, the defendant knew this at the time of trial and made this argument on appeal,” stated the Fourth District of Appeals.
Blanton also asserted a fourth postconviction issue, claiming that his attorneys rendered deficient performance when they announced to the jury that they were calling his girlfriend to testify and thereafter, withdrew her as a witness. Blanton argued that this conduct was prejudicial because it invited the jury to conclude that perhaps his girlfriend’s testimony would not corroborate his.
Blanton argued he was prejudiced by his counsel’s failure to request a change of venue in his sixth claim. Appellant pointed out that Adams County is a county with a small population; that the case attracted a great deal of media attention; and that several of the jurors had ties to the victim’s family or to local law enforcement. Blanton argues on appeal that the trial court treated this claim in his petition in a cursory manner. Blanton also asserts that there is a reasonable probability of a more favorable outcome if the trial had been moved to a larger, distant county.
“In the direct appeal, this court found ‘because [Appellant] failed to show that his counsel committed any error, his cumulative error argument also fails.’ Regarding the postconviction petition, citing State v. Dean, 146 Ohio St.3d 106, 166, 2015-Ohio-4347, 54 N.E.2d 8, ¶ 296, the trial court found “[B]ecause none of [the defendant’s] individual claims of ineffective assistance has merit, he cannot establish a right to relief simply by joining these claims together.” Again, we agree with the trial court’s finding as to alleged cumulative error. Thus, the trial court did not err by failing to hold an evidentiary hearing on the cumulative error claim,” stated the Fourth District Court of Appeals.
Blanton also argues that his Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated due to the state’s withholding potentially useful evidence in bad faith. Appellant alleges that Lieutenant Poe demonstrated personal animosity against Blanton. Blanton concludes that suspicious circumstances surrounding the handling and disposal of the video surveillance footage are sufficient to raise an inference that Lieutenant Poe destroyed or failed to preserve the video footage in bad faith.
In the postconviction petition, Blanton’s first claim was that Lieutenant Poe, an officer with the Adams County Sheriff’s Department, showed him video surveillance footage which clearly showed a “very conscious” Lunsford [the victim] using both arms to defend himself from Blanton’s punches. Blanton alleges that the sheriff’s office failed to preserve and/or deliberately erased the video footage of Lunsford defending himself. Blanton asserts his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights have been violated due to the state’s withholding or destroying this materially exculpatory evidence. Blanton argues that the un-preserved video footage from the camera would have positively refuted the prosecutor’s theory of guilt. Blanton specifically argues: “If the jurors had been presented with the footage of a conscious Lunsford defending himself, there is a reasonable probability that they would have returned a verdict of not guilty as to the felonious assault and kidnapping counts.” Blanton concludes the video footage was materially exculpatory.
“We find no merit to Appellant’s assertions. In Blanton II, the direct appeal, Appellant argued that he was deprived of his constitutional rights when his motion to dismiss the indictment for failure to preserve the surveillance footage was denied without receiving testimony from him. In resolving the assignment of error, we necessarily determined that based upon the record, the requested surveillance footage was not materially exculpatory and even if it could be determined that the surveillance footage was potentially useful, there was no showing it was destroyed in bad faith,” stated the Fourth District Court of Appeals.
“Appellant’s arguments regarding the supposedly exculpatory video surveillance footage were raised and considered fully in the direct appeal. Thus, the doctrine of res judicata applies. Therefore, we cannot find the trial court abused its discretion in failing to hold an evidentiary hearing on the same claim contained in the postconviction petition,” stated the Fourth District Court of Appeals.
Debating the question, “Was Blanton entitled to a hearing to determine whether his counsel was ineffective for allegedly failing to preserve his rights under the sixth and fourteenth amendments?” The appeals court ruled, “Appellant’s trial counsel filed a motion to dismiss the indictment due to the State’s alleged failure to preserve allegedly exculpatory video evidence. The trial court scheduled the motion for hearing on October 31, 2016. In the postconviction petition, Appellant claimed his Sixth Amendment right to confrontation and Fourteenth Amendment due process rights were violated because: (1) counsel did not discuss the scheduling of the hearing with Appellant; (2) counsel did not attempt to secure Appellant’s presence at the hearing; and (3) counsel did not request a continuance of the hearing to arrange for his presence. In the direct appeal, we found that Appellant’s interests were adequately protected and that by failing to timely object, he had waived the argument.
“My attorneys did not tell me about the scheduling of the hearing, did not attempt to secure my appearance for the hearing, and did not request a continuance of the hearing to arrange for my presence. I did not authorize my attorneys to waive my presence for the hearing,” stated Blanton. “I believe arrangements for my presence at the hearing was essential for a full and fair resolution of the motion to dismiss. The transcript of the hearing reveals that my attorneys were not aware of the missing video footage from the second camera. Their arguments to the Court were focused on video recordings of earlier, unrelated incidents pertaining to the first kidnapping count (the June 5, 2016 to June 17, 2016 time frame) for which I was acquitted by the jury.”
In additional, Blanton stated, “If I had been present for the hearing, I could have told my attorneys about the missing footage from the second camera, insisted on the need to call Lieutenant Poe to the witness stand, suggested a line of questioning directed to the destruction of the footage recorded by the second camera, and testified about my meeting with Lieutenant Poe and the exculpatory contents of the video footage that he showed me. I do believe Lieutenant Poe deliberately erased, destroyed, or concealed the exculpatory video footage from the second camera due to his personal animosity against me. During the June 20, 2016 meeting in his office, he told me he had enough charges against me to ensure that I would never go home. He laughed at me after the jury found me guilty of the rape and kidnapping charges in the first trial in Case No. CRI2016-0037. He told me I would have 30 years to think about what I did. I wanted to testify in my own defense for the purpose of refuting the prosecutor’s theory of guilty [sic]. If called to the witness stand, I would have told the jury that Gary Lunsford was fully conscious and deflecting my punches with his arms.” The Fourth District Court of Appeal disagreed with this argument.
On December 23, 2020, the Ohio Fourth Appellate District Court affirmed the decision from the Adams County Court of Common Pleas.
On February 8th, 2021, Blanton filed an appeal with the Ohio Supreme Court. On April 28th, 2021, the Ohio Supreme Court issued the following order, “Upon consideration of the jurisdictional memoranda filed in this case, the court accepts the appeal. The clerk shall issue an order for the transmittal of the record from the Court of Appeals for Adams County, and the parties shall brief this case in accordance with the Rules of Practice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.
The Ohio Supreme Court has not issued a date for the case to be heard.