There is never any shortage of television shows, novels and movies about the criminal justice system and courtroom trials. While writers and directors present the drama of those stories, they almost never deal with the more mundane, procedural details associated with trials. That’s understandable, but those elements are an essential part of the entire operation.
That was evident in a case that we recently reviewed here – at the Supreme Court of Ohio. The case began all the way back in 1991. That’s when a man named Lionel Harris was charged with aggravated murder in Hamilton County.
Harris’s case was assigned to the docket of Common Pleas Court Judge Thomas Nurre. However, a visiting judge – Judge Donald Schott – was assigned to preside over the trial. After the evidence was presented and the closing arguments were finished, the jury found Harris guilty.
On January 29, 1992, Judge Schott read the jury’s verdict, and then he immediately excused the jury. Because the defense waived a presentence investigation, Judge Schott also pronounced the sentence at the same time – Harris was sentenced to serve a term of 20 years to life.
So why is this case from more than 20 years ago relevant to us in 2014? The answer has to do with those procedural details.
By judgment entry that was also dated January 29, 1992, the trial court sentenced Harris to a term of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 20 years. But here’s the relevant twist – the judgment entry was signed by Judge Nurre on behalf of Judge Schott.
Now we’ll jump ahead to April 26, 2013. On that day, Harris filed an original action in the First District Court of Appeals requesting various writs and seeking to declare the entry of conviction void.
Harris argued that the judgment entry was void because it was signed by a judge who did not preside over the trial. In response to Harris’s action, the state filed a motion to dismiss his claims.
After reviewing the case, the court of appeals granted the state’s motion to dismiss on the grounds that the type of relief that Harris sought was not available through the means that he had requested.
Harris had based his claim on the argument that the judgment entry had failed to comply with Criminal Rule 32(C). As the name suggests, the Criminal Rules are a set of rules that have been established to govern the procedure of criminal trials.
If, as Harris argued, the judgment entry had failed to comply with Criminal Rule 32(C), then the type of relief that Harris had requested would be the proper remedy to compel the trial court to issue a new sentencing entry. Our court established that in a case from 2008.
But in this case, we concluded that Harris’s sentencing entry did not violate Criminal Rule32(C). A final, appealable order under Criminal Rule 32(C) must contain four elements: (1) the fact of the conviction, (2) the sentence, (3) the judge’s signature, and (4) a time stamp from the clerk of courts. All of these elements were present. Because Judge Nurre’s signing the entry was proper, the entry satisfies the requirements of Criminal Rule 32(C).
There is another Criminal Rule – 25(B) – that more closely addresses this situation. Criminal Rule 25(B) provides that “if for any reason the judge before whom the defendant has been tried is unable to perform the duties of the court after a verdict or finding of guilt, another judge designated by the administrative judge…may perform those duties.”
Now, there is no evidence – and the state did not contend – that the administrative judge reassigned the case to Judge Nurre after Judge Schott presided over the trial. But, in a case from 2000, our court held that Criminal Rule 25(B) does not preclude one judge from signing for another without a reassignment when the matter is purely ministerial. In that 2000 case, we ruled that signing a death warrant is a ministerial act that does not require the signature of a sentencing judge.
In addition, several courts of appeals from around Ohio have held that signing a judgment entry of conviction is a ministerial act when the assigned judge has already imposed sentence and the entry correctly reflects that sentence and correctly states the assigned judge’s name.
In making his argument that the sentencing entry in his case is void, Harris wasn’t just pulling arguments out of thin air. He relied upon a case that our court ruled on in 2012 called State v. Torrestoro.
In Torrestoro, the court of appeals reversed a decision because the sentencing entry was signed by a judge other than the assigned judge. But Torrestoro is different from Harris’s case because there was no indication that the assigned judge reviewed and approved the findings of fact before they were adopted in the final judgment entry by a different judge.
By contrast, in those cases in which sentencing entries signed by a judge other than the assigned judge have been approved, the assigned judge verbally sentenced the defendant, so the journalization of that sentence by a different judge was a nondiscretionary, ministerial act.
The same is true in Harris’s case. According to Harris’s own allegations, Judge Schott orally pronounced a sentence of 20 years to life from the bench at the time the jury returned with the guilty verdict. The subsequent judgment entry merely journalized that sentence without alteration.
Therefore, we concluded that the judgment entry complies with the requirements of Criminal Rule 25(B). And, based on all of the aforementioned reasons, we affirmed – by a seven-to-zero vote – the judgment of the court of appeals to dismiss Harris’s claims.
They may be seemingly mundane procedural details, but such issues are important in the process of criminal justice.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The case referred to is: State ex rel. Harris v. Hamilton Cty. Court of Common Pleas, 149 Ohio St.3d, 2014-Ohio-1612. Case No. 2013-0992. Decided April 22, 2014. Opinion Per Curiam.