Attorneys for Widmer, who was convicted in February in the 2008 drowning death of his wife, Sarah, filed a motion Wednesday asking a Warren County judge to set aside Widmer’s February murder conviction and accusing officials of perjury and cover-up.
“I think Judge (Neal) Bronson probably has a pretty strong case of ‘Widmer fatigue,’ but even so, he’ll do the right thing,” says defense lawyer Mike Allen, who has closely watched the saga since it began in 2008 with the drowning of Widmer’s wife, Sarah, 24, in their Hamilton Township bathtub.
While Allen, Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell and other experts think Widmer’s chances of persuading Bronson to grant a fourth trial are small, University of Cincinnati law professor Christo Lassiter says issues swirling around the case are grave.
Concerns about the honesty of Jeff Braley, the lead investigator, and how he may have influenced the county coroner, Russell Uptegrove, “not only provides a reason to doubt the conviction, it reeks of an injustice,” Lassiter said.
Despite that strong statement, Lassiter agrees with other experts that it will be very difficult for Widmer’s lawyer to overcome legal hurdles to prove a new trial is warranted.
Joe Mooney, a Northern Kentucky University law student who coordinated a panel discussion on the Widmer case said, “I think this (motion for a new trial) is a ‘Hail Mary’ pass that will likely fall incomplete. … At the end of the day, I would not bet any money on a fourth trial.”
Bronson’s decision on whether to grant a retrial may well turn on whether he now agrees that a jury should have been allowed to hear Widmer’s lawyers grill Braley over his credentials. Bronson blocked that line of questioning after a closed-door hearing in his chambers in 2010 about alleged resume fraud.
“When he made that decision, Judge Bronson didn’t know everything that we know now about Braley. … And now, if the judge believes Braley committed perjury, that’s one of the keys to the case,” said Mark Krumbein, a defense lawyer who became so fascinated by Widmer’s case he attended portions of all three trials.
Braley resigned in June after an investigator reported that Braley falsely claimed he had served in the U.S. Special Forces, which secured him a position heading the township’s police tactical unit in 2001 – before he became a sworn police officer.
“What happened with Braley was an abomination,” Allen said. “It’s almost unbelievable that a person could misrepresent his credentials like that and be put in such a position of responsibility.”
The investigator also found evidence dating to 1996, supporting allegations that Braley falsely asserted on township documents that he earned a master’s degree and held various jobs; Braley denied making the misrepresentations, but a handwriting analysis supported the allegation that the writing was his, officials said.
Fornshell downplayed the significance of Braley’s issues. But Allen, a former Hamilton County prosecutor, said that if he were in Fornshell’s position, he thinks the situation is “egregious enough” to consider taking the case to a grand jury to consider a possible perjury indictment of Braley.
“The problems with Braley are huge,” Allen said. “But did not knowing about them during the trial affect the outcome? I think a strong argument could be made either way.”
Lassiter thinks that, in order to grant a new trial, Bronson would have to decide that revelations about Braley may well have changed jurors’ minds about Widmer’s guilt, had they been aired during the trial.
Allen notes that Bronson has a reputation for doing what he thinks is just, even if it draws fire. It was Bronson who voided Widmer’s 2009 murder conviction because of jury misconduct; a hung jury resulted in 2010, followed by a conviction this year.
Fornshell dismisses Braley’s issues as irrelevant to the crime that Widmer is convicted of committing. But Krumbein said it’s reasonable to question the entire foundation of the case based on Braley’s involvement in it.
“Judge Bronson may feel that, if he (Braley) lied about substantive things in the past, and lied under oath in a pre-trial hearing, can anything he did or said be trusted?” Krumbein said.
And Braley did play a pivotal role in the case, Krumbein said.
“He maintained the crime scene, supervised gathering all the evidence. Then he told the coroner he thought this was a homicide – and he may not have been any more qualified to say that than the Man in the Moon. His qualifications were pretty bad.
“As the defense has already argued, if you can’t trust the messenger, you may get the wrong message.”
Widmer, 30, who last lived in Mason, was convicted in his third trial on Feb. 15. His first trial ended in a conviction, but the guilty verdict was set aside because of jury misconduct. The second trial ended with a hung jury.