State ex rel. Jones v. Suster

Decision Date02 December 1998
Docket NumberNo. 97-1231,97-1231
Citation84 Ohio St.3d 70,701 N.E.2d 1002
PartiesThe STATE ex rel. TUBBS JONES, Pros. Atty., v. SUSTER, Judge, et al.
CourtOhio Supreme Court

On December 21, 1954, Dr. Samuel Sheppard, a physician, was convicted of murder in the second degree of his wife, Marilyn Sheppard. He was sentenced to life in prison. After being incarcerated for ten years, Sheppard was granted a new trial in 1964 by a federal district court, which granted a writ of habeas corpus on the basis that Sheppard had not been given a fair trial. Sheppard v. Maxwell (S.D.Ohio 1964), 231 F.Supp. 37. The court of appeals reversed (C.A.6, 1965), 346 F.2d 707, but that decision was reversed and a writ of habeas corpus was granted by the United States Supreme Court. Sheppard v. Maxwell (1966), 384 U.S. 333, 86 S.Ct. 1507, 16 L.Ed.2d 600. Upon retrial, Sheppard was found not guilty. He was discharged from prison in 1966. Sheppard died in 1970.

On October 19, 1995, twenty-five years after Sheppard's death, Alan Davis, special administrator of Sheppard's estate, filed in the original criminal case a "Petition for Declaration of Innocence as a Wrongfully Imprisoned Individual" in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, Criminal Division, seeking a determination, pursuant to R.C. 2305.02, that Sheppard was innocent and had been wrongfully imprisoned.

After the state argued that a wrongful imprisonment action is a civil matter, Davis filed a second petition for declaration of innocence in the Civil Division of the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas on July 24, 1996.

On August 8, 1996, the state moved to dismiss, alleging that Davis's petition failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Specifically, the state alleged that the petition was barred due to laches, that the statute of limitations had expired, and that Davis lacked standing to file suit on Sheppard's behalf. 1 The trial court denied the motion to dismiss without opinion on January 13, 1997.

On February 28, 1997, the state filed an answer requesting that the petition be dismissed.

On May 7, 1997, the state, pursuant to Civ.R. 12(C), moved for judgment on the pleadings, again arguing that Davis lacked standing under the wrongful imprisonment statute. On June 3, 1997, the trial court denied the motion.

On June 18, 1997, relator, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Prosecuting Attorney for Cuyahoga County, filed in this court a petition for a writ of prohibition seeking to prohibit the Honorable Ronald Suster and the Court of Common Pleas of Cuyahoga County from conducting further proceedings, claiming that the lower court patently and unambiguously lacked jurisdiction. Relator based her petition for a writ upon grounds similar to those raised by the state in its motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim and its motion for judgment on the pleadings, both of which the lower court had denied.

This cause is now before the court pursuant to an alternative writ.

Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Cuyahoga County Prosecuting Attorney, George J. Sadd and Marilyn B. Cassidy, Assistant Prosecuting Attorneys, for relator.

Gold, Rotatori & Schwartz Co., L.P.A., Niki Z. Schwartz, Richard L. Stoper, Jr. and Jennifer E. Schwartz, Cleveland, for respondents.

Friedman & Gilbert and Terry H. Gilbert, Cleveland, urging denial of the writ for amicus curiae, Alan Davis, special administrator of the estate of Samuel H. Sheppard.


The Ohio Revised Code provides a two-step process whereby a person claiming wrongful imprisonment may sue the state of Ohio for damages incurred due to the alleged wrongful imprisonment. Walden v. State (1989), 47 Ohio St.3d 47, 49, 547 N.E.2d 962, 964. The first action, in the common pleas court under R.C. 2305.02, seeks a preliminary factual determination of wrongful imprisonment; the second action, in the Court of Claims under R.C. 2743.48, provides for damages.

Prior to filing suit in the Court of Claims for damages, a petitioner must establish the following: (1) the petitioner was convicted of a felony; (2) the petitioner was sentenced for that conviction; (3) the conviction was vacated, dismissed, or reversed; (4) no further prosecution was attempted or allowed for that conviction or any act associated with that conviction; and (5) the offense of which the petitioner was found guilty was not committed by the petitioner or was not committed at all. R.C. 2305.02, R.C. 2743.48(A). However, a previous finding of not guilty is not sufficient to establish innocence. The petitioner seeking to establish a claim for wrongful imprisonment must produce more evidence than a judgment of acquittal, which is merely a judicial finding that the state did not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Ellis v. State (1992), 64 Ohio St.3d 391, 393, 596 N.E.2d 428, 430. The petitioner carries the burden of proof in affirmatively establishing his or her innocence under R.C. 2743.48(A)(5).

If the common pleas court makes such a finding, then the petitioner may file a civil suit for money damages against the state. R.C. 2743.48(B) and (D). The claim must be commenced in the Court of Claims within two years of the common pleas court's determination that the petitioner had been wrongfully incarcerated. R.C. 2743.48(H).

In this case, Davis filed suit in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, seeking a declaration by that court that Sheppard was not the person who committed the aggravated murder of his wife, which is the prerequisite to filing a civil suit against the state for money damages. Relator asks us to issue a writ of prohibition to preclude the common pleas court from proceeding on Davis's petition in making a determination as to whether Sheppard was innocent of the murder of his wife because the court patently and unambiguously lacks jurisdiction.


This court has original jurisdiction to issue a writ of prohibition. Section 2(B)(1)(d), Article IV, Ohio Constitution. However, neither the Constitution nor the General Assembly has defined the parameters of prohibition. State ex rel. Burtzlaff v. Vickery (1929), 121 Ohio St. 49, 50, 166 N.E. 894, 895. Drawing from principles of common law, this court has determined that a "writ of prohibition has been defined in general terms as an extraordinary judicial writ issuing out of a court of superior jurisdiction and directed to an inferior tribunal commanding it to cease abusing or usurping judicial functions." Id. at 50, 166 N.E. at 895. In other words, the purpose of a writ of prohibition is to restrain inferior courts and tribunals from exceeding their jurisdiction. State ex rel. Barton v. Butler Cty. Bd. of Elections (1988), 39 Ohio St.3d 291, 530 N.E.2d 871. As such, a writ of prohibition is an "extraordinary remedy which is customarily granted with caution and restraint, and is issued only in cases of necessity arising from the inadequacy of other remedies." State ex rel. Henry v. Britt (1981), 67 Ohio St.2d 71, 73, 21 O.O.3d 45, 47, 424 N.E.2d 297, 298-299; State ex rel. Barclays Bank PLC v. Hamilton Cty. Court of Common Pleas (1996), 74 Ohio St.3d 536, 540, 660 N.E.2d 458, 461 ("Prohibition is an extraordinary writ and we do not grant it routinely or easily.").

In addition, a writ of prohibition "tests and determines 'solely and only' the subject matter jurisdiction" of the lower court. State ex rel. Eaton Corp. v. Lancaster (1988), 40 Ohio St.3d 404, 409, 534 N.E.2d 46, 52; State ex rel. Staton v. Franklin Cty. Common Pleas Court (1965), 5 Ohio St.2d 17, 21, 34 O.O.2d 10, 13, 213 N.E.2d 164, 167. 2

In order for a writ of prohibition to issue, the relator must prove that (1) the lower court is about to exercise judicial authority, (2) the exercise of authority is not authorized by law, and (3) the relator possesses no other adequate remedy in the ordinary course of law if the writ of prohibition is denied. State ex rel. Keenan v. Calabrese (1994), 69 Ohio St.3d 176, 178, 631 N.E.2d 119, 121.

A court of common pleas is a court of general jurisdiction and possesses the authority to initially determine its own jurisdiction. Prohibition will not lie to prevent an anticipated erroneous judgment. State ex rel. Heimann v. George (1976), 45 Ohio St.2d 231, 232, 74 O.O.2d 376, 344 N.E.2d 130, 131. However, we have created a limited exception in cases where there appears to be a total lack of jurisdiction of the lower court to act. Early cases referred to a "total want of jurisdiction" or to the court's being "without jurisdiction whatsoever to act." State ex rel. Adams v. Gusweiler (1972), 30 Ohio St.2d 326, 329, 59 O.O.2d 387, 388, 285 N.E.2d 22, 24, and paragraph two of the syllabus. Later cases defined this exception as a " 'patent and unambiguous' lack of jurisdiction to hear a case." Ohio Dept. of Adm. Serv., Office of Collective Bargaining v. State Emp. Relations Bd. (1990), 54 Ohio St.3d 48, 51, 562 N.E.2d 125, 129; State ex rel. Tollis v. Cuyahoga Cty. Court of Appeals (1988), 40 Ohio St.3d 145, 148, 532 N.E.2d 727, 729. In such circumstances, a writ of prohibition may issue before a lower court has made a determination of its own jurisdiction, even where an adequate remedy in the ordinary course of the law may exist. Id.; Ohio Dept. of Adm. Serv., Office of Collective Bargaining v. State Emp. Relations Bd., 54 Ohio St.3d at 51-52, 562 N.E.2d at 129.

Relator would be able to appeal adverse rulings on the issues raised herein and does not contend otherwise. Thus, absent a patent and unambiguous lack of jurisdiction, relator's remedy in the ordinary course of law by postjudgment appeal precludes prohibition. Consequently, in order for a writ of prohibition to issue in this case, we must find that the alleged defects patently and unambiguously deprive the trial court of jurisdiction to hear this case.

Relator raises two main legal arguments in support of the petition for a writ of prohibition: (1) the statute...

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