The tentacles of the Ryan Widmer murder case aren’t letting go.
Just when it seems that the controversial case is about to drift away, something happens to get people talking about it again.
Most recently, Widmer’s mother, Jill, was found dead at age 58 in deplorable conditions in her Mason home July 29. Many argue that stress and heartache helped send her to an early grave.
Sunday marks five years since newlywed bride Sarah Widmer, 24, drowned in her Warren County bathtub, plunging her family and friends into sorrow. Her death also spawned a controversial criminal prosecution against her husband, Ryan. Now 32, he’s serving 15 years to life in prison for murder, a crime he insists he didn’t commit.
The case captivated Greater Cincinnati with through three sensational trials. Debate over the case polarized the community – an effect that seems to have lingered.
“There are people who think three trials is two trials too many – that he should have just been convicted and kept in prison after the first time,” said Mark Krumbein, a defense lawyer who attended parts of all three trials. “Others feel that three trials still aren’t enough, that there were a lot of problems with the case. They think he’s still an innocent man and he should get a fourth trial and have his freedom.”
But another lawyer who watched the case closely, former Hamilton County prosecutor Mike Allen, identified perhaps its most extraordinary aspect: “It’s almost as if there’s a curse associated with this case, when you look at the trail of tears behind it.”
“Of all the cases I’ve been involved in, either as a defense lawyer, prosecutor, judge or police officer over the last 35 years, there’s not one that comes to mind where there’s been so much tragedy spread around.”
Allen also has never seen a criminal case maintain such a strong grip on the Cincinnati psyche for so long, nor has he seen a case undermine so many people’s confidence in the criminal-justice system.
“I still get questions about it, when I go to Kroger or I’m walking down the street – and people are passionate about it,” Allen said. “They’re passionate about it on both sides – about whether he’s guilty or not guilty. And if you get people in a conversation about it, you almost can’t get them out of it.”
After one failed attempt to appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court, Ryan Widmer’s appellate lawyer is urging the court to consider whether DNA testing could prove “whether a crime occurred at all” in the 2008 bathtub drowning of his wife.
Last week, in a split decision, the Supreme Court refused to consider a first appeal based largely on assertions that authorities had illegally seized the bathtub as evidence. Three of the court’s seven justices said they would have accepted the appeal.
On Wednesday, attorney Michele Berry filed a second appeal with the Supreme Court, this time focusing on issues that arose after a Warren County jury convicted Widmer in his third trial in 2011. Berry called the case worthy of Supreme Court attention because it is “of great public interest and involves substantial constitutional questions.”
Specifically, Berry argues that a Middletown-based appeals court “misinterpreted” existing case law surrounding DNA testing in Ohio when it agreed with Judge Neal Bronson’s refusal to order genetic testing on blood from Widmer’s wife, Sarah.
Widmer and his supporters say his young wife showed possible signs of a genetic heart-rhythm disorder that could have caused her to drown. But she was never tested for that condition, “Long QT Syndrome,” or a similar problem.
Judge Neal Bronson (center) talks with John Arnold, Warren County assistant prosecutor (left), and Jay Clark, defense attorney, during the Ryan Widmer murder trial. / Enquirer file photo
Janice Morse reports:
The glare of international publicity hit Neal Bronson soon after he became a judge.
In 1987, he presided over the strange case of Sam the Chimp, a cigarette-smoking, beer-swilling primate caught in a custody battle between his owner and the Humane Society of the United States.
Then, toward the end of Bronson’s tenure on the Warren County Common Pleas Court bench, he endured the rigors of three sensational trials for Ryan Widmer, whom a jury convicted of murder three years after the 2008 bathtub-drowning of his wife.
During those cases, and hundreds in between, Bronson earned respect for being a cool-headed jurist with a commanding presence – tempered with endearing dashes of humor and warmth, says Jim Spaeth, Warren County clerk of courts.
“He just seemed to stay very steady through it all,” Spaeth said. “He’s open to people, he’s caring; he’s just a flat-out nice guy.”
Bronson had been a fixture in the Warren County courthouse from 1987 until he retired from the bench at the end of last year following a string of unopposed elections.
Bronson, 64, could have sought another term, but he decided it was time to step aside.
His time on the bench provided insights into troubling trends, Bronson said.
Often, he says, people who run afoul of the law share similar life scripts. “They didn’t finish high school, had substance (abuse) issues, come from a single-parent family,” Bronson said.
“It’s kind of sad…. I wish I could help these people,” he said.
Still, Bronson occasionally saw a sign that he had made a difference in someone’s life.
Ryan Widmer has been shot down again. The Ohio 12th District Court of Appeals, in a ruling released this morning after a five-month wait, rejected a second appeal of his murder conviction in the 2008 bathtub drowning of his wife.
But that doesn’t mean the fight is over for the Warren County man who stood trial three times before being convicted in 2011; he’s serving 15 years to life in prison. His lawyer has already asked the Ohio Supreme Court to consider his case and also could appeal to the federal courts.
The Middletown-based appeals court filed its decision in Warren County Common Pleas Court here, where Widmer’s trials were held.
This second appeal centered on whether a detective’s alleged pattern of lying tainted the entire case and also raised concerns that genetic testing, which wasn’t done, may have revealed that Widmer’s wife, Sarah, 24, suffered from a health condition that contributed to her death.
Lawyers in the case had argued their points to the court in August. Widmer’s appellate lawyer, Michele Berry, focused on allegations that authorities improperly withheld information that cast doubt on the credibility of the lead investigator on the case, Jeff Braley. He resigned from the Hamilton Township Police Department in 2011 after an independent investigator said the township had reason to question his honesty.
An assistant prosecutor, Michael Greer, had argued 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.
After four years of unusual twists, another one has cropped up in the Ryan Widmer murder case.
In upholding Widmer’s murder conviction after three trials in the 2008 bathtub-drowning of his wife, Sarah, Monday’s decision by the Ohio 12th District Court of Appeals included a constitutional-issue ruling that could be the only one of its kind in the nation, Widmer’s lawyer said.
And that constitutional issue appears destined to be resolved in higher courts, at the state or federal levels, legal scholars say.
Ian Friedman of Cleveland, who formerly headed the state Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and now is adjunct professor at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, said: “The question of whether the taking of the bathtub violated Mr. Widmer’s Fourth Amendment rights will not be ultimately settled at the Twelfth Appellate District.”
The Fourth Amendment safeguards American citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures by government agents such as police. How that constitutional guarantee applies to the Widmer case is open to interpretation, Friedman said.
Widmer’s appellate attorney, Michele Berry, had argued that police had no legal right to remove the bathtub from the Widmers’ Hamilton Township home because the tub was not specifically mentioned in a search warrant that a judge granted in 2008.
A three-judge panel of the appeals court, which had been considering the case since April, ruled that it was legal for police to seize the bathtub, since it was “an instrument of the crime.”
The appeals court also said that, after investigators noticed marks on the tub, that gave them “probable cause” to remove the bathtub because “it was possible that further inspection of the item would explain how events unfolded on the night of Sarah’s death and provide insight as to how the smear marks were made on the tub.”
But, Berry said: “There’s no court anywhere – Ohio, federal or state – that said an actual part of a house can be considered ‘an instrument of the crime’ and can be seized without court authority. The 12th District is standing alone on that.” In Ohio, a bathtub is considered a part of the house because it is a “fixture.”
Ryan Widmer discusses his three murder trials at the Warren Correctional Institution, where he is serving 15 to years to life after being convicted of killing his wife Sarah in 2008. The Enquirer/Cara Owsley
Janice Morse reports:
In the decision denying Ryan Widmer’s appeal of his murder conviction, the appeals judges ruled that seizing the bathtub was legal. They called the bathtub “an instrument of the crime,” and said it therefore was subject to being seized.
Widmer’s attorney had argued that authorities improperly seized the tub because it was not specifically mentioned in a search warrant.
The judges rejected that argument and said that because officers had observed marks on the tub “officers had probable cause to associate the bathtub with Sarah (Widmer)’s death.”
Further, the judges said “removal of the tub was warranted as it was possible that further inspection of the item would explain how events unfolded on the night of Sarah’s death and provide insight as to how the smear marks were made on the tub.”
UPDATE: The appeal was denied; Ryan Widmer’s murder conviction has been upheld, a three-judge panel of the Ohio 12th District Court of Appeals has ruled.
BEGIN ORIGINAL STORY: An appeals court’s decision Monday will be a pivotal one, determining which path the Ryan Widmer murder case will travel next.
A three-judge panel of the Ohio 12th District Court of Appeals has been considering the appeal since April, when lawyers gave arguments focusing mostly on whether authorities illegally seized the bathtub where Widmer’s wife, Sarah, 24, drowned in 2008 in Hamilton Township. This is the first of two separate appeals pending with the court on Widmer’s behalf.
Widmer’s lawyer has asked the Middletown-based court, which hears cases from an eight-county region, to throw out his 2011 conviction and order a retrial of a case that drew intense public scrutiny and national media attention. Now 31, Widmer is serving 15 years to life in prison. He was convicted in his third trial after juror misconduct and a deadlocked jury caused two mistrials.
Appeals court officials say they intend to file the decision at 9 a.m. Monday in Warren County Common Pleas Court, where Widmer was convicted. The judges who considered the case were: Robert P. Ringland, Robert A. Hendrickson, and H.J. Bressler, a retired judge appointed to hear the case.
Ryan Widmer will find out Monday whether he gets a fourth trial in the bathtub-drowning of his wife.
The Ohio 12th District Court of Appeals in Middletown will file its decision on the first of two appeals at 9 a.m. Monday in Warren County Common Pleas Court, Scot Ritter, an appeals court official, said Friday. A three-judge panel at the Middletown court has been working on the decision since hearing arguments in April.
Widmer’s appellate lawyer, Michele Berry, on Friday said: “The court absolutely should grant a new trial. That’s what I expect to hear when the decision is announced. Law enforcement unlawfully seized the bathtub and used junk science to convict Ryan Widmer. Although there were many other serious errors, the egregiousness of these two errors alone warrants a new trial.”
Attempts to obtain comment from Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell were unsuccessful Friday.
After a Warren County jury convicted Widmer of murder in February 2011, Widmer began serving a prison term of 15 years to life.
In a case that drew national publicity, that verdict followed two controversial mistrials. But in the third trial, jurors were convinced that evidence showed Widmer had drowned his wife, Sarah, 24, in the bathtub of their Hamilton Township home. They had been married only about four months at the time of her death in August 2008.
Widmer, now 31, and his supporters continue to protest that he was wrongfully convicted.
Berry has argued that police unlawfully removed the bathtub from the Widmer home without a court order – and Widmer’s trial lawyers erred when they failed to file timely objections to admission of the tub, which ended up being a major piece of evidence against Widmer.
Prosecutors argued that absence of his prints on the tub was evidence that it had been wiped clean after the forced drowning. They also presented a criminalist’s testimony about unidentified “streaks” and a “forearm mark,” and argued those marks were proof of a violent struggle.
There is no scientific foundation for those conclusions, Berry argued. She says the testimony therefore was improper and unfairly prejudiced the jury against Widmer, violating his right to a fair trial.
“The law is very clear,” Berry said. “However, if the court disagrees, we’ll relentlessly move forward with an appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court. We won’t see an end to this until Ryan is free.”
Regardless of how the appellate judges rule Monday, a second appeal is still pending. That appeal mostly focuses on issues that arose after he was convicted last year.
That appeal asserts 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 in 2011 after an independent investigator said the township had reason to question his honesty.
The appeals court is also considering whether to force prosecutors to allow genetic testing of blood from Sarah Widmer.
Because she was cremated, prosecutors possess the only possible evidence available to test for genetic conditions such as “Long QT Syndrome,” a heart-rhythm disturbance that Berry thinks could have led to Sarah’s drowning. 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.