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Ohio Supreme Court Clarifies Meaning of ‘Outcome Determinative’ in Context of Motion for Postconviction DNA Testing

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of Ohio clarified the meaning of “outcome determinative” in the context of a motion filed pursuant to R.C. 2953.73, seeking postconviction DNA testing.

Guy Billy Lee Scott was convicted by jury in 1992 for the assault, rape, and murder of Lesa Buckley and sentenced to a prison term of 15 years to life. In 2019, Scott petitioned the trial court under R.C. 2953.73 for postconviction DNA testing. The trial court denied the petition, reasoning that the “outcome determinative” standard of R.C. 2953.74(D) was not satisfied. The Twelfth District Court of Appeals (“COA”) affirmed the trial court’s judgment. The Ohio Supreme Court accepted Scott’s discretionary appeal.

Court observed that “Ohio law provides offenders the opportunity to apply for postconviction DNA testing as described in R.C. 2953.71 through 2953.81.” Because DNA testing was not done on samples taken from Buckley’s body in the early 1990s, Scott’s petition falls under R.C. 2953.74(B)(1), which provides the court may accept the application only if:
“[t]he offender did not have a DNA test taken at the trial stage in the case in which the offender was convicted of the offense for which the offender is an eligible offender and is requesting the DNA testing regarding the same biological evidence that the offender seeks to have tested, the offender shows that DNA exclusion when analyzed in the context of and upon consideration of all available admissible evidence related to the subject offender’s case as described in [R.C. 2974(D)] would have been outcome determinative at that trial stage in that case, and, at the time of the trial stage in that case, DNA testing was ... not yet available.”

“An ‘exclusion result’ is a DNA test result ‘that scientifically precludes or forecloses the subject offender as a contributor of biological material recovered from the crime scene or victim in question.’” R.C. 2953.71(G).

“‘Outcome determinative’ means that ‘there is a strong probability that no reasonable factfinder would have found the offender guilty of [the] offense’ for which he or she was convicted if the DNA results had been presented and found relevant and admissible at trial and ‘had those results been analyzed in the context of and upon consideration of all available admissible evidence related to the offender’s case.’” R.C. 2953.71(L).

In the instant case, the COA determined that the trial court did not act unreasonably, arbitrarily, or unconscionably in finding that a DNA exclusion result would not be outcome determinative, stating: “This is not a case where the margin of evidence was so narrow that a DNA exclusion result would lead to a strong probability that no reasonable factfinder would have found Scott guilty. This is also not a case where Scott’s conviction was premised on one or a few pieces of suspect evidence, or a single eyewitness’s questionable identification. The jurors considered the testimony of dozens of witnesses and numerous pieces of circumstantial evidence that, when fit together, led them to the conclusion, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Scott assaulted, raped, and murdered Buckley.”

But the Court explained: “Taking the court of appeals’ description of the evidence at face value, it is easy to assume the jury’s verdict was reasonable. But the relevant question is not whether the available admissible evidence was enough to convict Scott; rather, the relevant question is whether there is a strong probability that no reasonable factfinder would have found Scott guilty of the offenses of assault, rape, and murder if a DNA test result excluding Scott had been presented at trial and analyzed in the context of and upon consideration of all available admissible evidence.” See R.C. 2953.71(L).

The Court observed there was no physical evidence connecting Scott to the crime and then considered the circumstantial evidence against Scott in light of a DNA test that excluded Scott, i.e:
* the eyewitness who had testified at trial that he saw Scott and Buckley engaging in a sexual act before Buckley’s death had later recanted his testimony in interviews with the Ohio Innocence Project and with the Preble County Sheriff’s Office and a DNA exclusion result would eliminate any remaining credibility of this witness;
* the incriminating strength of testimony that Scott and Buckley went missing from the party around the same time and that Scott returned to the party wet (Buckley’s body was found in a lake as the party occurred at a nearby quarry) would diminish in light of a DNA exclusion result and in light of the fact that between 60 and 120 people had attended the party and the fact that Scott had told investigators he had been pushed into the lake; and
* a DNA exclusion result supported Scott’s defense theory that the likely suspects were Ronnie Johnson (Buckley’s abusive ex-boyfriend) and Johnson’s sister Lisa (Lisa had run over Buckley’s foot after an altercation in a parking lot) and a witness testified to seeing Ronnie’s car drive away from the party (but Ronnie and Lisa testified they were at Ronnie’s home on the evening of the murder).

The Court concluded: “We do not reach this decision lightly. The horrible events leading to Buckley’s death are not ones that her family and friends should have to relive so many years later. But the specter of a wrongful conviction in light of available but untested DNA evidence is something the legislature has sought to prevent by making postconviction testing available.” Thus, the Court ruled that the trial court and the COA abused their discretion by denying Scott’s application for postconviction DNA testing because a result that excludes Scott would be outcome determinative since there is a strong probability no reasonable juror would have found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt had the DNA test result excluding him been presented at trial.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the COA’s judgment and remanded to the trial court with instructions to accept Scott’s petition. See: State v. Scott, 2022 Ohio LEXIS 2454 (2022).

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