Janice Morse reports:
An appeals court is considering whether a detective’s alleged pattern of lying tainted the entire case against Ryan Widmer, a Warren County man convicted of murder in the 2008 bathtub drowning of his wife, Sarah.
The Ohio 12th District Court of Appeals on Tuesday heard arguments on the second of two appeals that Widmer is pursuing as he attempts to get his 2011 conviction overturned. That conviction came during Widmer’s third trial, following two controversial mistrials. He’s serving 15 years to life in prison.
Tuesday’s arguments focused on allegations that authorities improperly withheld information calling into question the credibility of the lead investigator on the case, Jeff Braley, who resigned from the Hamilton Township Police Department last year after an independent investigator said the township had reason to question his honesty.
An assistant prosecutor and Widmer’s appellate attorney each had 15 minutes to argue their points in court.
Michele Berry,Widmer’s lawyer, told the appeals judges that Warren County Common Pleas Judge Neal Bronson “really went astray” when he characterized Braley as a minor trial witness . Regardless of Braley’s testimony during the trial, his role affected the entire course of the investigation, Berry asserts, and his alleged “pattern of lying,” dating to 1997, is reason to doubt the integrity of the investigation.
Bronson barred Widmer’s lawyers from grilling Braley about his credibility, including documents asserting he held a master’s degree from two colleges that say he never attended. Berry asserts that authorities knew about these alleged falsehoods and others but withheld that information from Widmer’s lawyers.
Armed with that information, Widmer’s lawyers would have been able to pursue a different trial strategy, Berry said; they would have argued that the case, from its premise, was tainted because of Braley’s involvement. Even before Braley declared the Widmer home a crime scene, Braley had given the county coroner information that he relied upon to declare Sarah Widmer’s death a homicide, Berry said.
She says Braley jumped to conclusions before exploring possible non-criminal causes of Sarah Widmer’s drowning. “Braley decides that he will consider no other options but murder,” Berry said.
Assistant Prosecutor Michael Greer countered that Berry’s arguments are based on speculation as to what Braley may have done and how his involvement may have affected the case. But there are no facts supporting those concerns, Greer asserted.
“There’s no evidence that Lt. Braley did anything to the evidence,” Greer said. Berry had pointed out that a second examination of the Widmer bathtub found additional marks after it had been in Braley’s possession. But Greer suggested that the marks may have simply gone unnoticed at first and the second examiner may have just been “more thorough.”
Greer said that it was irrelevant whether Braley had made false claims about his credentials, including representations that he had served in the U.S. Special Forces. Braley has denied the accusations.
Even if Braley did make false claims, “it would not have changed the outcome of the trial,” Greer said, adding that other evidence, including a 911 call from Widmer and testimony of medical experts was still sufficient to support Widmer’s conviction, no matter what Braley said or did. “Lt. Braley simply was not that important,” Greer said.
As part of Widmer’s second appeal, the appeals court is also considering whether to force prosecutors to allow genetic testing of blood from Sarah Widmer.
Because Sarah, 24, was cremated, prosecutors possess the only possible evidence that could be tested for genetic conditions such as “Long QT Syndrome,” a heart-rhythm disturbance that Berry thinks could have led to Sarah’s drowning, since Sarah Widmer had a cleft palate and other features associated with that syndrome.
Prosecutors oppose the testing, saying Widmer’s trial lawyers made a mistake by not asking for it earlier. They also argue that the testing shouldn’t be allowed because even if Sarah Widmer tests positive for the syndrome, that doesn’t disprove murder.
After hearing oral arguments, the appeals court generally takes several months to issue decisions.
Based on that timetable, the appeals court could be just about ready to release its ruling on Widmer’s first appeal, which was heard in April. The first appeal focuses on whether authorities seized the bathtub as evidence without a proper warrant and whether an expert lacked a scientific basis for his opinions about marks found on the tub.
- Second Widmer appeal filed
- Widmer hearing focuses on bathtub
- Three-judge panel reviewing Widmer conviction
- Widmer lawyer vows fight after fourth trial denied
- Widmer lawyers: Bathtub seized improperly
- Ryan Widmer: “I’ll never give up”
- Ryan Widmer found guilty of murder