Ryan Widmer looks at his family after he was found guilty of murdering his wife Sarah Widmer in 2008. This photo was taken Tuesday, February 15, 2011. / The Enquirer/Cara Owsley
The state’s top court won’t give Ryan Widmer a new trial.
In a 4-3 vote, the Ohio Supreme Court declined today to accept his case for review.
Widmer is serving 15 years to life for killing his wife, Sarah, in their Hamilton Township home in 2008.
Widmer’s attorney, Michele Berry, had argued 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.
The 32-year-old Colerain Township native who last lived in Mason has maintained his innocence.
Widmer’s lawyers have said they plan to appeal to federal courts if the Ohio Supreme Court turned them down.
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.
Ryan Widmer looks at his family after he was found guilty Tuesday of murdering his wife Sarah Widmer in 2008. This photo was taken Tuesday, February 15, 2011. / The Enquirer/Cara Owsley
Janice Morse reports:
The lawyer for Ryan Widmer, a Warren County man convicted in the bathtub drowning of his newlywed wife, is asking the Ohio Supreme Court to hear his appeal.
Attorney Michele Berry filed a 17-page document Wednesday, arguing that the state’s highest court should accept the case. She argues that the Widmer case meets the court’s requirements that it involves issues of “public or general interest” and “a substantial Constitutional question.”
Berry argues that authorities illegally seized the bathtub from Widmer’s Hamilton Township home after his wife, Sarah, 24, drowned in 2008. The tub was not specifically listed on a search warrant. But the Ohio 12th District Court of Appeals in Middletown said the tub could be considered “an instrumentality of the crime,” and therefore was subject to being seized.
Berry says the appellate court’s decision is out of line with existing case law.
“With this decision, the 12th District now stands alone among courts in its holding that a search warrant or other court authorization is not needed to seize part of a home/real property,” Berry wrote.
Berry also lists several other legal issues she thinks the Ohio Supreme Court should address in Widmer’s case.
Widmer, 31, is serving 15 years to life in prison. A jury convicted him of murder last year in his third trial. Two previous trials ended in mistrials.
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.
Jurors in the Ryan Widmer murder case were provided with all the information they needed to make a sound decision, prosecutors say, arguing that the lead detective’s alleged credibility problems were irrelevant.
Although Hamilton Township police Lt. Jeff Braley was the lead investigator, “(Widmer’s) guilt did not turn upon Lt. Braley’s testimony,” prosecutors wrote this week in their response to Widmer’s second appeal of his 2011 murder conviction. “In other words, Lt. Braley’s credibility was not material…(and) was not determinative of the Appellant’s guilt or innocence. Any issues material to the case were fully aired before the jury.”
Widmer, 31, is serving 15 years to life in prison after being convicted of drowning his wife of four months, Sarah, 24, in their bathtub in Warren County’s Hamilton Township in 2008.
Now county prosecutors and Widmer’s appellate lawyer, Michele Berry, are battling in the Ohio 12th District Court of Appeals in Middletown.
In two separate appeals, Berry asks the court to throw out Widmer’s conviction based on alleged mistakes. The court heard arguments about the first appeal in April and could make a ruling in a few more weeks. That appeal focuses on issues such as alleged illegal seizure of the bathtub.
The second appeal centers largely on Warren County Common Pleas Judge Neal Bronson’s refusal to allow Widmer’s trial lawyers to grill Braley about false statements in his employment records. Berry contends that, if Bronson had permitted jurors to learn more about Braley, that may have changed the outcome of Widmer’s third trial following two mistrials.
But Warren County Assistant Prosecutor Michael Greer wrote: “The record from the first, second and third trials demonstrates conclusively that the State used the 911 tape, the testimony of the first responders and the testimony of its medical experts to prove that (Widmer) murdered his wife.”
Berry says authorities wrongfully withheld information about Braley, and she argues that Braley’s involvement could have skewed the whole case.
Greer calls Braley’s role in the case “rather minimal,” noting: “he was not solely responsible for collecting most of the evidence.” There also is “not a shred of evidence…that he fabricated or altered any evidence or that he even had the opportunity to do so,” Greer wrote.
A year ago, an independent investigator issued a report revealing more questions about Braley‘s honesty, and Braley resigned. He denied making any false statements.
Next, the appeals court is to set a hearing in which judges will question Berry and Greer about the issues they raised in court documents.
Ryan Widmer’s new lawyer argues that authorities made five significant mistakes in his case – and four of the claimed errors involve Jeff Braley (pictured), a former Hamilton Township police detective lieutenant who resigned amid controversy over alleged misrepresentations of his credentials. Enquirer file photo
Janice Morse reports:
In a second appeal filed today, Ryan Widmer’s new lawyer argues that authorities made five significant mistakes in his case – and four of the claimed errors involve Jeff Braley, a former Hamilton Township police detective lieutenant who resigned amid controversy over alleged misrepresentations of his credentials.
Michele Berry, appeal attorney for Ryan Widmer, shows a photo of the space where Widmer's bathtub was ripped out of from his Hamilton Township home in 2008. Berry says police had no right to remove the tub under the search warrant they obtained. Berry presented evidence to a three judge panel at the Ohio 12th District Court of Appeals in Middletown on Monday April 16, 2012. The Enquirer/Cara Owsley
Janice Morse reports:
In an alleged “bathtub murder” case, why was the bathtub itself not listed on a search warrant?
That is one of the major points that Ryan Widmer’s appellate lawyer, Michele Berry, hammered home today during a hearing before the Ohio 12th District Court of Appeals here, arguing police had no right to take the bathtub, which is considered part of the home. She said that, for example, if a crime were committed in a mobile home, police shouldn’t therefore be allowed to seize the entire mobile home. That, she said, would be a violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Judges Robert P. Ringland, left, Robert A. Hendrickson, and H.J. Bressler, listen to Michele Berry, appeal attorney for Ryan Widmer, as she goes over details about the bathtub where Widmer's wife Sarah, drowned in their Hamilton Township home in 2008. / The Enquirer/Cara Owsley
Police never should have removed the tub 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, Berry said.
Assistant Prosecutor Michael Greer argued: “The police officers do not know, cannot list every possible source of fingerprints.” That’s why the search warrant didn’t list the bathtub, he said, although the search warrant did say they were looking for fingerprints.
The presiding judge, Robert Hendrickson, noted: “The search warrant didn’t list one or a couple items. There were multiple items,” yet the bathtub itself was omitted.
Widmer, 31, who is serving 15 years to life in the 2008 bathtub drowning of his wife, protests that he was wrongfully convicted of murder last year. None of his fingerprints were found on the tub, but prosecutors argued that was evidence that the tub had been wiped clean after the drowning of his wife, Sarah, 24. And prosecutors argued that, based on a criminalist’s testimony about unidentified “streaks” and a “forearm mark” — were evidence of a violent struggle. Such evidence lacks a scientific foundation, Berry argued, and that testimony should have been barred from the trial.
About a dozen supporters showed up wearing white to symbolize they believe Widmer is innocent. On the other side of the room sat John Arnold, a Warren County assistant prosecutor who presented evidence against Widmer during all three of his trials.