Ohio High Court Weighs Death-Row Inmate’s Bid for DNA Tests

COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) – Ohio death-row inmate Tyrone Noling believes DNA testing of evidence found at the scene of a 1990 double homicide could be his chance to clear his name and avoid execution, and his fate now rests with the state’s highest court.

Noling’s attempts to have that evidence tested using the newest technology available – as well as his attempts to obtain the complete results of DNA testing already performed by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, or BCI – have been denied by the Portage County Court of Common Pleas, the trial court where he was convicted of the killings in 1996.

Noling and his attorneys are now appealing the denial of his application for post-conviction DNA testing to the Ohio Supreme Court and challenging BCI’s assertion that critical evidence gathered at the scene of the crime is contaminated to the point that it is “scientifically unsuitable” for DNA testing.

“The consequences of mistakes in this [case] are not simply an innocent person staying in prison, but the possibility of executing an innocent man,” Noling’s attorney, Brian Howe, said during oral arguments on Tuesday.

Noling and his attorneys are opposed by Portage County prosecutor Victor Vigluicci and assistant prosecutor Pamela Holder, who assert that the trial court’s decision is neither reviewable by nor appealable to the Ohio Supreme Court, according to state law governing appeals and other post-conviction remedies.

Vigluicci told the justices Tuesday that the denial of Noling’s application for additional DNA testing was done properly and the state’s high court “should affirm it and put an end to the 27 years of appeals that we have gone through and finally give justice to Mr. and Mrs. Hartig.”

Bernhardt and Cora Hartig were shot and killed on April 7, 1990, in the kitchen of their home in Atwater, Ohio.

The crime was investigated by the Portage County Sheriff’s Department for two years, but no arrests were made.

The Portage County Prosecutor’s Office took over the investigation in 1992 and focused their attention on Noling and four other youths who had been arrested for a series of robberies that occurred 10 miles away from Atwater around the same time that the Hartigs were murdered.

Despite the fact that there was no evidence linking Noling or his cohorts to the crime, and the fact that Noling maintained his innocence and passed a lie detector test about the murders, he was eventually convicted based on testimony given by his co-defendants.

All of those co-defendants have since recanted their confessions and stated they were pressured to incriminate Noling by police and the investigator from the Portage County Prosecutor’s office.

After an unsuccessful attempt to appeal his conviction, Noling filed applications for additional DNA testing of a cigarette butt found in the Hartigs’ driveway, discarded shell casings from the murder weapon, and empty ring boxes found in a ransacked bedroom.

DNA testing was performed on the cigarette butt and established that it was not a match for Noling or any of his alleged accomplices.

The Portage County Court of Common Pleas then denied Noling’s request for additional testing on the shell casings and ring boxes based on BCI’s determination that the critical pieces of evidence could not be tested because they had been contaminated by detectives and crime lab technicians who mishandled them back in the 1990s.

Addressing the Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday, Noling’s attorney challenged the BCI’s determination about the shell casings and ring boxes and asked the high court to ensure that the evidence from Noling’s case is tested using the best and most accurate DNA technology available, even if that testing must be performed by a third party laboratory.

“It is especially important here that statutory procedures regarding transparency and scientific rigor are followed to the extent that the law requires,” Howe argued before the court.

Noling’s attorneys are asking for access to the complete results of DNA testing already done on the cigarette butt, for the shell casings to be run through a federal database to see if the murder weapon was used in any other crimes, and for a reputable lab to do DNA testing using the latest technology for shell casings and ring boxes from the crime scene.

They plan to then compare any DNA pulled from the shell casings and ring boxes with the existing DNA profile taken from the cigarette butt to determine if there is one DNA profile that can be found on all the items.

Howe explained to the court how this concept, known as “anchoring,” has been used to exonerate numerous wrongfully convicted inmates.

“Ultimately, if you find a male profile that matches all three of those items, and Mr. Noling is excluded from that, that’s very strong evidence that he deserves a new trial,” Howe told the high court.

Vigluicci argued that Noling and his legal team were given the DNA results that were required to be provided under Ohio law and stated that any further efforts to procure DNA results from evidence that BCI has deemed contaminated were nothing more than delay tactics.

“This has to end at some point,” Vigluicci said.

Noling’s DNA testing requests now rest in the hands of Ohio’s highest court, and it is unclear when it will make a decision.

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