Can a decision issued by our court – the Ohio Supreme Court – in 2010 have an impact on the sentence of a man serving prison time for crimes committed in 1983? That was the issue in a case that we reviewed involving a man named Michael A. Walker.
In 1983, a jury found Walker guilty of aggravated murder, aggravated burglary, and two counts each of aggravated robbery and felonious assault. As a result, the trial court sentenced him to serve 64 to 105 years and/or life in prison. When he appealed, his convictions and sentences were affirmed.
On June 17, 1999, Walker filed a motion with the trial court seeking to have his sentence “corrected” in accordance with a state law and the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Fifth Amendment’s double-jeopardy provision states, “nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” But the trial court denied his motion and Walker did not appeal.
Then, on September 17, 2013, Walker filed an action in the court of appeals seeking what’s called a writ of mandamus to compel the state of Ohio to resentence him. A “writ of mandamus” is the name given to a writ that is issued by a court of superior jurisdiction – such as a court of appeals – to a governmental unit commanding the performance of a particular action.
Walker filed for the writ because he argued that a decision by our court called State v. Johnson, entitled him to a resentencing hearing at which the trial court must address the issue of allied offenses.
What are “allied offenses?” They are crimes with elements similar to the elements of another crime. Our ruling in Johnson changed the standard for evaluating allied offenses by overturning an earlier ruling from a case that was decided in 1999.
Under the changed standards brought about by Johnson, courts must “consider the offenses at issue in light of the defendant’s conduct.” A further change stated that a “court need not perform any hypothetical or abstract comparison of the offenses at issue in order to conclude that the offenses are subject to merger.” When offenses are “subject to merger,” it means that they are so similar that they are merged into one.
In response to Walker’s action, the state filed a motion to dismiss, arguing – among other things – that the decision in Johnson does not apply retroactively.
The court of appeals granted the motion to dismiss and held that Johnson applies only to cases pending on the date that the Johnson decision was announced, not to convictions that were final prior to that date.
After that, Walker’s case came before us for a final review.
Walker argued that he was entitled to a new hearing for resentencing because of the new standards established by the Johnson ruling. He also maintained that his state and federal constitutional rights were violated when the trial court failed to determine whether any offenses were subject to merger at the time of his sentencing hearing.
A person seeking a writ of mandamus must establish three things: first, a clear legal right to the requested relief; second, a clear legal duty on the part of the official or governmental unit to provide it; and third, the lack of an adequate remedy in the ordinary course of the law.
Walker was unable to establish a clear legal right to the relief he sought because of our decision in a case from 2014 called State v. Ketterer. In that case, our court held that Johnson does not apply retroactively to cases that were final prior to the date the Johnson decision was announced.
Walker was convicted in 1983 and his conviction was affirmed – on appeal – in 1984. By contrast, the Johnson decision was announced on December 29, 2010. Thus, Walker’s conviction became final long before our decision in Johnson was announced.
While the court of appeals did not have the benefit of our decision in Ketterer when it reviewed Walker’s case, the court of appeals nonetheless correctly analyzed Walker’s claim by holding that Johnson is a new judicial ruling that may not be applied retroactively to a conviction that had already become final.
In his appeal, Walker also invoked the double-jeopardy provision in the Ohio and United States Constitutions. But by making this argument, Walker was merely recasting the primary complaint from his first argument – that the trial court must hold a new hearing to resentence him in accordance with the decision in Johnson. Walker pointed out that a federal district court had ruled that Johnson applies retroactively. But that opinion was overruled by another federal court of appeals on the very basis for which Walker cited it.
Because our decision in Johnson does not apply retroactively, Walker is unable to establish that he has a clear legal right to relief.
Furthermore, Walker had an adequate remedy in the ordinary course of the law by way of direct appeal and postconviction relief, both of which he has repeatedly sought over the 30 years since his conviction. And, as we have stated before, “where a plain and adequate remedy at law has been unsuccessfully invoked, a writ of mandamus” does not apply to relitigate the same issue.
Therefore, we concluded that Walker did not establish by clear and convincing evidence that he has a clear legal right to relief. And Walker has, or had, adequate remedies in the ordinary course of the law. Thus, he did not satisfy the requirements for obtaining a writ of mandamus.
Walker also filed a motion to stay the collection of court costs generated by this case. By a seven-to-zero vote we affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals to dismiss Walker’s petition for a writ of mandamus, and we affirmed its decision to deny his motion to stay the collection of court costs.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The case referred to is: State ex rel. Walker v. State, 142 Ohio St.3d 365, 2015-Ohio-1481. Case No. 2014-0336. Decided April 21, 2015. Opinion Per Curiam.
Paul Pfeifer is a justice of the Ohio Supreme Court.