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Ralph Smith

Other Ohio Exonerations
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A little after 10:30 p.m. on February 2, 2000, 24-year-old Rudy Stefanitsis called the police in Pickerington, Ohio, and said he, his wife, and their three children had been robbed in a home invasion.

Stefanitsis said two Black men with guns had forced their way into their home in the suburbs of Columbus and demanded to be taken to the couple’s safe in the basement. He said the men forced him to open the safe and took rare comic books and approximately $10,000 in cash. The men also stole jewelry and other valuables. The men tied up the family with electrical tape, cut the phone line, took their cordless phone, and then left.

Trisha Stefanitsis, who was 23 years old, was able to break free of the tape, and she and the others drove to the house of a family member and called police.

The men wore hats and masks that concealed the lower part of their faces, but the mask of one man, known as “Suspect 2,” kept slipping down, briefly exposing his entire face. In addition, the men wore large coats, which made it harder for Rudy or Trisha to say whether they were skinny or heavy set.

Trisha Stefanitsis described one suspect as about six feet tall, with an open face. She said she did not get a good look at the other suspect, except to note he had “buggier eyes.” The Pickerington police attempted to create a composite sketch, but the lead investigator, Detective David Silvernail, would write that Trisha was unhappy with the results and that “Trisha seemed to be relaying a story rather than recalling a memory.”

She also told the police that on the day of the home invasion, two Black men had gotten out of a black Geo Tracker and knocked on her door. She ushered them away. The 911 call mentioned a similar car.

In their initial interviews with police, Rudy and Trisha Stefanitsis gave a list of people who knew the location of their safe. Rudy mentioned an acquaintance named Dana, who fit the suspect descriptions, and said, “I know for sure [he] had something to do with it. I guarantee it 100 percent.” Silvernail brought Dana in for questioning. He denied any knowledge of the crime, but Silvernail wrote in his notes that Dana “was shaking during the interview.”

Police never recovered any of the stolen items.

A few days after the reported home invasion, a woman named Mary Office told a friend that she suspected 24-year-old Ralph Smith had something to do with the crime. The friend told Larry Stefanitsis, and he told his brother, Rudy, who passed the information to Silvernail.

Smith had a criminal record for burglary and larceny, and Silvernail created a photo array for the Stefanitsises. They came to the police station on February 10, 2000. Silvernail used small pieces of paper to place on the photos to recreate the masks the robbers were said to have worn. Rudy and Trisha Stefanitsis, as well as their six-year-old daughter, chose Smith as “Suspect 2,” but the couple told Silvernail that they wanted to see him in-person to be sure.

Silvernail interviewed Office on February 15, 2000. She said that she did not know for certain that Smith committed the home invasion, but she said that she had heard him talking about a robbery and that these sorts of crimes were “just what he does.”

Silvernail interviewed Smith on March 13 and told him about the identifications. Smith said he had met Larry Stefanitsis a few times but had never met Rudy or Trisha and wasn’t involved in any robbery. Silvernail asked him if he knew a woman named Mary, and whether she had a “vendetta” against him. Smith said he knew Office, whom he had recently dated, but that they were still on good terms. According to a transcript of the interview, Smith thought the whole thing sounded silly, and he asked for the Stefanitsises to look at him in person to show that he wasn’t the person who committed the home invasion.

Rudy and Trisha Stefanitsis testified before a grand jury in Fairfield County, Ohio, on March 17, 2000. The grand jury handed down an indictment against Smith, charging him on two counts of aggravated burglary, three counts of aggravated robbery, two counts of kidnapping, and one count of theft.

After the grand jury met, the couple again told Silvernail that they wanted to have another chance to identify Smith, preferably in person, to be sure. Instead, Silvernail produced a single photograph, labeled with Smith’s name. Both Rudy and Trisha were satisfied with their identification. Silvernail would later testify that presenting the photo in this manner was “an error in judgment.”

Prior to the start of the jury trial in the Fairfield County Court of Common Pleas, Smith’s attorney, Mark Ort, filed a discovery motion with the state. Ort was later replaced by Terry Sherman, and he supplemented the initial motion with additional discovery requests. Prosecutors provided him with some, but not all documents. For example, Sherman wasn’t given any information about alternate suspects.

Sherman also moved to suppress the identifications made by Rudy and Trisha Stefanitsis. A hearing was held on June 19, 2000, with both witnesses making in-court identifications of Smith. The motion was denied.

The trial began on August 8, 2000, with Fairfield County Assistant Prosecutor Gregg Marx representing the state. There was no physical or forensic evidence tying Smith to the crime; the electrical tape yielded no usable fingerprints. Silvernail testified about the investigation, and he said that neither Rudy nor Trisha Stefanitsis ever identified anybody else as a potential suspect.

Rudy Stefanitsis said that he was certain that Smith was one of the two men who robbed him at gunpoint in his home. Asked on cross-examination how he could be sure that his identifications from the photo arrays weren’t just best guesses or approximations, Rudy responded, “Because that’s the person who came to my home.”

Trisha Stefanitsis also said she was certain in her identification: She testified: “From February 2, I’ve seen his face every single day. I remember it all the time. I remember the situation every single day. I have nightmares about it. I have everything about it. And I remember – there’s no doubt in my mind about it.”

Smith did not testify, and his attorney presented no witnesses. The jury convicted him on all eight counts on August 10, 2000, and he was later sentenced to 67 years in prison.

Smith filed four unsuccessful motions for relief in state courts and two unsuccessful petitions for writs of habeas corpus in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio.

On May 5, 2020, he filed a pro se motion for a new trial, claiming that prosecutors failed to disclose numerous pieces of evidence that undermined the testimony of the eyewitness identifications and the state’s theory of the crime. He was assisted in his motion with research done by Martin Yant, a former journalist turned private investigator.

The state had not disclosed Silvernail’s interview with Rudy Stefanitsis, where he mentioned the likelihood of Dana’s involvement, or Silvernail’s interview with Dana himself. The motion said that Silvernail testified falsely about the investigation and the lack of other suspects, and that Marx failed to correct this false testimony.

Rudy Stefanitsis had doubts about his selection just a few weeks after he made his initial identification of Smith. He called Silvernail and said it didn’t make sense that Smith was one of the robbers. Silvernail pushed back, saying “My understanding is that you are 100 percent sure that was him in the picture.” Stefanitsis hedged, stating “Out of the pictures that I’ve seen that you had on there, he’s the only one that looks like that guy there.” These statements weren’t disclosed.

Similarly, the state didn’t disclose that Trisha Stefanitsis initially told police that she had a hard time differentiating between the two suspects and remembering details, in part because of the poor lighting conditions in the basement. The state also didn’t disclose Trisha Stefanitsis’s statement to the police that the men in the Geo Tracker were almost certainly the men who committed the home invasion.

As part of his motion, Smith also submitted a 2019 affidavit from Office, who said that she lied to Silvernail when she told him that Smith was likely involved in the robbery. “I was angry and jealous that Ralph B. Smith was moving in with another female at the time,” she said.

Finally, Smith’s motion said the state failed to provide him with the full police report, which included a narrative by the first officers on the scene that could be read as questioning whether a crime even occurred. The officers viewed the scene with skepticism, noting “a lack of fresh footprints in the snow,” and only slight damage to the door jam. They said the house did “not appear to be ransacked,” and that “the house was gone through too selectively for my taste.”

Judge Richard Berens of the Fairfield County Court of Common Pleas ordered an evidentiary hearing, which took place on October 27, 2020. Smith was now represented by Joseph Landusky. Marx, who had been elected Fairfield County Prosecutor but lost a bid for reelection in 2016, was the only witness, and he testified about his approach to determining what evidence to disclose to the defense.

He did not contest Smith’s claim that the evidence wasn’t disclosed. Rather, he said the evidence didn’t need to be disclosed. “I did not believe there was any exculpatory evidence,” he said. “If there was, I would have turned it over.”

For example, he said he didn’t turn over the police report, because he thought the report was infused with racial animus. (Rudy Stefanitsis is Black.)

“In the year 2000, Pickerington, Ohio was not the most diverse area in the free world,” Marx said. “And it was apparent to me that some of the officers weren’t treating the victims fairly, because there were things in their report that talked about – in fact, one of them maybe even when they filed charges [said] ‘How could that guy have so much money, so early, so young in life?’ They accused him of being a drug dealer. And I thought that was relevant to their opinion about things.”

Although Silvernail was not one of the officers Marx distrusted, his section of the report also raised questions about the crime’s occurrence, noting that neighbors did not see or hear anything out of the ordinary on February 2.

In a filing opposing Smith’s motion, the state argued that Smith’s trial attorney had failed to act diligently in pursuing these records.

At the time of the trial, Ohio rules of criminal procedure exempted witness statements from pre-trial disclosure. Instead, the rules said that the defense could make a motion after a prosecution witness testified for the trial court to conduct an inspection of the witness’s previous statements to see whether there were inconsistencies. The rules also noted that prosecutors had an obligation to turn over all evidence favorable to the defense upon receiving proper notification.

Judge Berens vacated Smith’s conviction on June 9, 2021. He said that Marx had made substantial errors in his decisions about what to disclose, using his own discretion too broadly and applying the wrong standard to the evidence.

In addition, his order said the state’s attempt to assert that Ohio’s rules of criminal procedure trumped disclosure rules as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t pass muster.

Judge Berens said in his opinion that the undisclosed evidence, while not overwhelmingly exculpatory, was material and substantial to Smith’s defense and could have led to a different verdict.

“Had the materials at issue been properly disclosed,” he wrote, “the defense strategy may have taken an entirely different shape. In the court’s view, this different shape had the potential to severely weaken the state’s case against Smith, given the paucity of inculpatory evidence presented.”

Smith was freed on bond on July 2, 2021.

Fairfield County Prosecutor Kyle Witt, who had defeated Marx in a bitter election in 2016, said he needed to evaluate the case and talk to police and the victims about whether and how to proceed. “The passage of time presents certain hurdles and impediments for retrying the case,” he told the Columbus Dispatch.

On September 2, 2021, Landusky moved to suppress the witness identifications in the case. He noted that since the 2000 trial, Ohio law had changed and now required photo identifications to be conducted by so-called “blind administrators.” He also said that Silvernail’s decision to put Smith’s name on the single photo he showed the couple after they testified before the grand jury “skewed their confidence that they had selected the right man, all but assuring an in-court identification at trial as well.”

Witt filed a motion to dismiss the charges against Smith on September 10, 2021. He said there was no “compelling interest” in retrying the case, noting that Smith had already served 21 years in prison and that current sentencing guidelines meant he was unlikely to serve additional time in prison if convicted again. Judge Berens granted the motion to dismiss on September 14, 2021.

“There are no words to describe how happy I am,” Smith told the Dispatch. “I finally got this nightmare over with. I got my life back.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 10/14/2021
Last Updated: 10/14/2021
State:Ohio
County:Fairfield
Most Serious Crime:Kidnapping
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Burglary/Unlawful Entry, Theft
Reported Crime Date:2000
Convicted:2000
Exonerated:2021
Sentence:67 years
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:24
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No