CLEVELAND (CN) – An Ohio man convicted of three murders claims in a federal lawsuit that he is entitled to a new, impartial evaluation of the forensic evidence used against him after the state suppressed other evidence in his favor, including concerns that an analyst was biased.
Kevin Keith, who was convicted in 1994 of murdering three people and shooting three others in Bucyrus, Ohio, says a fair re-evaluation of the forensic evidence in his case is necessary because of newly uncovered information that calls into question the credibility of a state forensic analyst who provided key forensic conclusions in his case.
Keith’s lawsuit was filed Monday in Cleveland federal court by attorneys from Jones Day, the Ohio Public Defender’s Office and Sybert, Rhoad, Lackey & Swisher LLC.
The lead defendant is G. Michele Yezzo, a former forensic scientist for the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, or BCI.
According to the complaint, Yezzo’s personnel file at BCI contained a memo from 1989, roughly five years before Keith’s arrest and conviction, detailing co-workers’ concerns about her mental stability and trustworthiness.
The memo allegedly explains how several of Yezzo’s colleagues requested that she undergo a medical examination based on a consensus of opinion that she “suffers a severe mental imbalance.”
“This 1989 memo states plainly the concern that Yezzo’s ‘findings and conclusions regarding evidence may be suspect. She will stretch the truth to satisfy a department,’” Keith’s lawsuit states.
The complaint further states that analysts rechecking Yezzo’s work in 1993 questioned her conclusions on a blood analysis and partial footprint analysis. Yezzo’s personnel file also allegedly shows that she had used racial slurs when addressing a black co-worker.
Keith’s lawsuit asserts that BCI knew Yezzo was violating the constitutional rights of criminal defendants, but nevertheless allowed her to render critical conclusions in Keith’s case.
“Defendant Yezzo was known…as an analyst who would ‘stretch the truth to satisfy’ law enforcement,” the complaint states.
Yezzo testified against Keith, a black man, in a deposition connecting him to the crime, using an imprint of a license plate that was left in a snow bank where the murderer’s car got stuck while he was fleeing the scene, according to the lawsuit.
The former examiner allegedly testified that the snow impression at the scene fit the spacing and orientation of the license plate on a vehicle driven by Keith’s then-girlfriend.
Yezzo also came to the conclusion that tire tracks left in the snow at the scene were similar to tires that had been on Keith’s girlfriend’s vehicle, he says.
Keith says she came to this allegedly dubious conclusion not by comparing the actual tires on the vehicle, but by comparing the tracks at the scene to a brochure photo provided to her by a captain in the Bucyrus Police Department.
Keith and his attorneys claim Yezzo’s deposition testimony caused police to doubt his alibi, which was corroborated by multiple people, and disregard incriminating evidence against other potential suspects with likely motives.
Yezzo has denied manipulating evidence, according to local news reports.
Keith was initially sentenced to death upon his conviction. He filed numerous post-conviction petitions and motions for a new trial, but all of his arguments have been rejected based on “strict procedural defenses” raised by the Crawford County prosecutor and the Ohio attorney general’s office, according to the complaint.
In 2010, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland commuted Keith’s death sentence to life in prison 13 days before his execution because of the “real and unanswered questions” in the case against him.
The crux of Keith’s lawsuit is his claim that Ohio never told him or his attorneys about concerns over Yezzo’s alleged biases and reputation for untrustworthiness, which prevented him from demonstrating that he is entitled to a new trial.
Keith and his attorneys claim that Yezzo’s personnel file and other exculpatory evidence were suppressed from Keith until he had exhausted his appeals, in violation of his due process rights.
“Because Keith obtained the information about Yezzo after the expiration of time to file a timely post-conviction petition or new trial motion, he was required to first obtain leave to file his claims,” the lawsuit states. “He was denied leave to file his claims, and he was never permitted to file his underlying motion on the merits.”
In addition to Yezzo, the other defendants are BCI; Daniel Cappy, a BCI laboratory director; Jon Lenhart, a superintendant at BCI; Michael Corwin, an officer with the Bucyrus Police Department; the City of Bucyrus; the Bucyrus Police Department; the Crawford County Prosecutor’s Office; Crawford County Prosecuting Attorney Matthew Crall; and Ohio Attorney General Michael DeWine.
Keith seeks an order to have the forensic evidence re-evaluated by a fair and impartial analyst, and to have the defendants waive all procedural arguments precluding the consideration of his claims on the merits. He also seeks nominal, compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorney fees.
Rejecting Keith’s arguments, the Ohio Court of Appeals’ Third District last summer upheld a trial court’s decision to deny Keith’s most recent bid for a new trial, finding that even if Keith had obtained the “new evidence” in Yezzo’s personnel file, the outcome of the trial would have been the same.
“Over the years in his numerous appeals and post-conviction petitions Keith has challenged many aspects of his case and the evidence against him, but one fact remains clear, the evidence against Keith was simply overwhelming,” the appeals court ruling states. “Based on the record we cannot find that, even assuming Yezzo’s personnel file was suppressed, and that it contained information favorable to Keith, there is no reasonable possibility that the information contained in Yezzo’s file would have made any difference in the outcome of this case.”
The Ohio Supreme Court declined last month to take up Keith’s case.
Keith is represented by James Wooley of Jones Day; Zachary Swisher of Sybert, Rhoad, Lackey and Swisher LLC; and Rachel Troutman and Kathryn Polonsky from the Office of the Ohio Public Defender.
Neither Keith’s attorneys nor the Ohio attorney general’s office responded Tuesday to phone calls seeking comment.