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Michael Buehner

Other Exonerations from Cuyahoga County, Ohio
At around 2:20 a.m. on May 24, 2001, 20-year-old Jerry Saunders was shot to death in the front yard of a house on Marah Avenue, on the west side of Cleveland, Ohio.

Based on early interviews with witnesses, officers with the Cleveland Police Department produced a quick summary of the case for review by the chief of police. It said that Saunders had gone up to a black pickup truck, possibly a Ford or Chevrolet, said something to the people inside, and then hopped into the bed. Shortly thereafter, he got off the truck and talked with the driver, who fired a shot, then two more. One of the other men in the truck got out and went through Saunders’s pockets.

One witness, Tierra Edwards, said Saunders was shot by the driver, who was white, in his late 20s, with dark hair. She said that at least one of the passengers was Black, but she wasn’t sure about the race of the other one. Another witness, Gail Jenkins, also said the driver was white, but the two passengers were Black. She told police that she believed she would be able to identify the men if she saw them again, because she had seen two of the truck’s occupants about 20 minutes earlier, as they cruised through the neighborhood.

Two days after the murder, Brenda Dennis, Saunders’s sister, called the police and said that 19-year-old Lawone Edwards had witnessed the shooting and given her a description of the men involved. According to Dennis, Lawone said Saunders was shot by the truck’s driver, who was white, in his early 20s, with short blond hair and a teardrop tattoo on one of his eyes. The other two occupants were Black men; one had very light skin, and the other was very dark-skinned with a heavy build.

The police arrested Lawone Edwards on unrelated charges on June 5. Edwards said he and Saunders were selling drugs when the shooting happened. His description of the men differed from what Dennis had attributed to him. Edwards said the driver was a white man in his 30s. The passenger in the middle was also white, in his 20s, freckled and with the tattoo near one of his eyes. Edwards said this man was the shooter. The passenger in the far right of the truck cab, according to Edwards, was a Black man in his late 30s, dressed very neatly, with a round face. Edwards also said the truck was GMC, as he had seen its logo on the front.

As the investigation continued, police took down several statements regarding trucks that fit the general description. One woman, Wilhelmina Mason, told police that Lawone Edwards said he saw a black truck used by one of their acquaintances two blocks away just a few minutes after the shooting.

On July 19, a confidential informant told a narcotics detective about two possible suspects in the shooting: 24-year-old Michael Buehner and 28-year-old Randy Price. Both were white. The informant said that Buehner was the shooter, and Price drove the truck. The informant said the truck was parked in a garage on Ottawa Road, about two miles from the shooting.

Four days later, police showed Lawone Edwards two separate photo arrays. From the first array, he selected Price as the driver of the black truck. The second array included Buehner’s photo. Edwards did not make an identification, although he said he could perhaps make an ID if he saw the person in a live lineup.

Jenkins and Tierra Edwards viewed the photo arrays on July 28. Neither woman selected anyone. However, according to the police report, they also said they might have more success viewing a live lineup.

Police interviewed Price at his house in the city’s Slavic Village neighborhood on August 7, 2001. He denied any involvement. Price said he knew Buehner. They had met recently in prison, and learned that they were second cousins, through Price’s father. Price said he didn’t believe Buehner had a black truck, and even if he did, Price wouldn’t have been driving it because Buehner didn’t trust Price to drive his vehicles.

On November 23, 2001, a confidential informant told the police that Buehner was in jail, after being arrested on a charge of breaking and entering. It’s not clear if this was the same informant as before, although it was the same narcotics detective who received the tip. Buehner had given a false name when arrested, but he told the homicide detectives that he did so because he wanted to stay out of trouble. He said the B&E charge was a mix-up. He had simply helped the other people who were arrested move some furniture.

Buehner said he owned a black pickup, a Dodge, but it lacked plates, and he kept it in his garage. His address, on Ottawa Road, was the same location mentioned by the confidential informant.

On December 4, Price’s girlfriend gave a statement to police. She said that Price told her that Buehner had asked Price to ride with him in Buehner’s truck because Buehner wanted to retaliate against a drug dealer who had ripped Buehner off. Price drove, she said, and Buehner shot the dealer several times.

Police arrested Price on December 5 and charged him with murder, attempted murder, and robbery. He again denied involvement and said that the detectives were being tricked by his girlfriend.

On December 7, 2001, Lawone Edwards selected Price from a live lineup as the driver of the black truck.

On December 20, a short article appeared in the Plain Dealer newspaper that said prosecutors were seeking the death penalty against Price. Price’s mother, Beverly Price, called the police, concerned about her son. The police told her that if her son wanted to tell them anything, he would have to initiate contact. Price, joined by his mother, then called from the jail. He said Buehner was the shooter. The police arranged for Price to come to the police station and make a statement, which he gave on December 26, 2001.

Police charged Buehner with murder, attempted murder, and robbery, on January 11, 2002.

After Buehner’s arrest, his attorneys began preparing for trial, filing motions for discovery. The first request was filed January 24, 2002. The Cuyahoga County District Attorney’s office responded a month later, providing the attorneys with potential witnesses. The response also said that it had no exculpatory evidence in its possession.

At the time, the district attorney’s office did not have an open files policy. Instead, it practiced “closed discovery,” barring defense attorneys from a direct examination of the state’s files. The prosecutor would read from selected documents at pre-trial hearings, allowing the defense attorneys to take notes.

Buehner’s attorneys, James Kersey and Thomas Gill, followed up their initial discovery request with two more motions for evidence, the second made as a public-records request. The trial judge denied the motions but said the state needed to release other statements of any witnesses that prosecutors called to testify.

Prior to trial, Price entered into an arrangement with the state, agreeing to testify against Buehner. He pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and armed robbery, with his sentencing delayed until after Buehner’s trial.

The trial began on June 10, 2002 in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. A pathologist testified that Saunders was shot twice. One bullet went through his leg. The other lodged in his chest. A state forensics technician testified that the bullet recovered from Saunders was “generally” consistent with a .38-caliber weapon. A slug found at the crime scene was also reported to be from the same weapon. Police also found a 9 mm shell casing.

Although Lawone Edwards had failed to pick Buehner from the photo array, he selected him out of a live lineup after Buehner’s arrest. He testified that Buehner was the man he saw shoot Saunders.

According to Edwards, he and Saunders were selling crack when the black truck approached. A Black man in the passenger seat asked about buying $100 of drugs. Edwards said he and Saunders climbed into the truck bed and drove down Marah Avenue, stopping in the middle of the block. The Black man got out of the truck and told Saunders to talk to the man in the middle of the bench seat. Edwards said that after Saunders told that man to show him the money, the man pulled out a gun and said, “Here’s your money right here.” Saunders ran, but the man fired, and Saunders fell to the ground. Edwards said the man pointed his gun at him, and he ran and hid behind a parked car. Edwards said the gun Buehner held was either a 9 mm or a .45-caliber.

Price testified that he and Buehner went out that night to buy some “wet,” slang for a cigarette dipped in either PCP or formaldehyde. Along the way, they picked up a Black man, whom Price did not know, and that man gave Price directions to the area near 93rd Street and Marah Avenue.

Price gave a different account of the shooting. Price said Buehner was discussing a drug deal with an unidentified Black man when Saunders approached the truck from a house. At some point, Price testified, someone said, “He’s got a gun,” and then he saw Buehner shooting.

Price said that Buehner held a 9 mm pistol.

Later, Price said, after Saunders lay on the ground, Buehner walked over to him, and said, “I killed him Randy. I think I killed him.”

Price said Buehner later told him, after they returned the truck to Buehner’s garage, that Saunders had sold him $450 of bad “wet” earlier that day. Price said Buehner also told him not to worry about getting caught, because the truck lacked plates. He also testified that Victoria Thomas, Buehner’s grandmother, went to the scene of the shooting on the afternoon of May 24 in an attempt to locate any spent shell casings that Buehner may have left behind.

Buehner did not testify, but Thomas testified as his alibi. She denied Price’s allegations and said that Buehner was asleep at her home at the time Saunders was shot and killed.

The jury began deliberations on June 14. They sent Judge Peggy Foley Jones a question based on an initial impasse; two of the jurors didn’t believe the testimony of Edwards or Price. Judge Jones told them to keep deliberating. Thirty minutes later, they asked to review the statements Edwards and Price made to the police. The judge told them they needed to rely on their collective memory of the testimony and evidence. At 4:30 that afternoon, which was a Friday, the 10 jury members in favor of conviction asked Judge Jones what to do about the two holdouts.

The jury was excused for the weekend, then returned on Monday, June 17, 20o2, convicting Buehner for murder and attempted murder but acquitting him of robbery. He was later sentenced to 18 years to life in prison.

Buehner appealed his conviction, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to convict him, and that Judge Jones erred in her responses to the jury questions.

In 2003, Ohio’s Eighth District Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction for murder, but threw out the conviction for attempted murder, agreeing with Buehner that there was insufficient evidence that he shot at Edwards. Because the sentences for the murder and attempted murder convictions were running concurrently, the ruling did not reduce Buehner’s sentence.

On July 31, 2014, Buehner filed a pro se motion for a new trial, based on documents that a friend received through a public records request to the Cleveland Police Department. The documents included a police interview with Debbie Anderson on September 27, 2001. Anderson lived next to the house where Saunders was shot, and she told detectives that she watched two men approach the truck and then saw and heard the shooting from her bedroom window. She said it appeared that the other man with Saunders appeared to know the people in the truck because of the way they talked to each other. She said all the men in the truck were Black, and that the reason people in the neighborhood were saying they were white was to avoid telling the police who shot Saunders.

Anderson told the police she would not testify in court. In their report, the police appeared to discount her statement, writing, “It was also apparent this female was under the influence of alcohol at the time of our arrival.”

As part of the motion, Buehner had received a letter from his trial attorney Kersey, who confirmed that the state had not given Anderson’s statement to the defense. But her name was on the list of potential witnesses, and Kersey said that Gill made three attempts to contact Anderson prior to trial. When Gill finally reached her by telephone, she said she knew nothing about the shooting. Armed with the police statement, Kersey said, they would have kept trying.

Over the next three years, the motion was amended several times, as Buehner sought additional records related to his case. Attorney Russell Randazzo began representing Buehner in 2016, and he filed a separate motion for a new trial on June 27, 2017.

Along with Anderson’s statement, the new motion also said that prosecutors had failed to disclose other exculpatory records, including the statements of Gail Jenkins, Tierra Edwards, and Wilhelmina Mason. Although all three of the women were on the list of potential witnesses the state provided to Buehner’s defense team prior to trial, the state had not indicated that the women had made any statements that could be helpful to Buehner. Alternately, the motion said, if these records had been properly disclosed, Buehner’s trial attorneys had been constitutionally deficient in their representation by failing to present this evidence.

Judge Jones was no longer on the court of common pleas, so Buehner’s motions were heard by Judge Peter Corrigan. On August 29, 2017, without holding an evidentiary hearing, Judge Corrigan denied Buehner’s motions for a new trial. In a one-paragraph ruling, he said that Buehner’s trial attorneys knew that Anderson was a witness, and there was nothing to prevent them from finding out what she had seen.

Buehner appealed, arguing that Judge Corrigan had abused his discretion by denying the motions without an evidentiary hearing. On November 1, 2018, the Eighth District Court of Appeals remanded the case back to Cuyahoga County, ordering Judge Corrigan to hold an evidentiary hearing.

The two-day hearing took place in November 2019. Anderson testified at the hearing, often at odds with her statement to police. She said four men came out of the truck, and then later said she didn’t actually see this action take place. She also said she didn’t have her prescription glasses and couldn’t remember if she had been drinking that night. (She denied being drunk when she spoke to the detectives in 2001.)

Richard Bombik, who prosecuted the case against Buehner, testified that he didn’t believe Anderson’s statement was exculpatory, because he didn’t find her to be credible.

“Ms. [Anderson] did not come to the police,” Bombik said. “The police went to her at the request of Brenda Dennis, the victim’s sister. And then when they go, they talk to her, she’s under the influence of alcohol. I’m sorry sir, I’m not attaching a lot of significance to that when I see that I got a living codefendant here who happens to be white, who happens to take accountability for his actions in this case, who happens to be related to Mr. Buehner.”

Judge Corrigan denied Buehner’s motion for a new trial on April 16, 2020. He said that based on his review of the testimony at the trial and the evidentiary hearing, it was clear that Buehner’s attorneys knew about most of the key evidence in the case, that they provided skillful representation, and that the evidence that was not disclosed would not have made a difference.

In his pro se motion, Buehner had claimed that prosecutors misstated the evidence, based on the inconsistency between the witness testimony that Buehner held a 9 mm pistol and the forensic testimony that .38-caliber slugs were recovered. Corrigan said that wasn’t so; the state’s firearm expert had hedged his testimony about the type of bullet by using the word “generally.”

Buehner appealed, and the Eighth District Court of Appeals granted him a new trial on December 16, 2021. The court said that Wilhelmina Mason’s existence was clearly not known to Buehner’s defense team. “We acknowledge that Anderson and Jenkins were named in the witness list disclosed to the defense team. However, this did not relieve the state of its obligation to disclose their exculpatory statements particularly where … those statements were specifically requested during the discovery phase.” Given the jury’s deliberations about the credibility of Price and Edwards, “We find a reasonable probability exists that the jury would have reached a different decision if the exculpatory evidence had been known at trial.”

A month later, on January 14, 2022, Buehner was released from jail on a $250,000 bond, as he awaited a new trial.

That same day, Randazzo moved to disqualify Judge Corrigan from presiding over the retrial, claiming judicial bias. He said that Judge Corrigan had dragged his feet in his rulings on the case, prolonging Buehner’s incarceration. He also said that the bond and conditions of release set by Judge Corrigan were burdensome, punitive, and inconsistent with the bond and conditions in other cases where defendants were charged with similar crimes.

On February 17, 2022, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor of the Ohio Supreme Court declined to remove Judge Corrigan from the case. Despite two appellate rulings reversing his decisions, there was nothing to suggest Judge Corrigan couldn’t be impartial, she wrote.

A year later, on March 23, 2023, Randazzo filed a new motion seeking Judge Corrigan’s removal. He said the judge had pushed back the trial date several times without reason and had refused to modify the conditions of Buehner’s pre-trial reporting requirements. In addition, according to Randazzo’s affidavit, he had overheard Judge Corrigan make an offhand remark that Randazzo said suggested the judge was delaying the trial in hopes of getting Buehner to resolve the case through a plea.

Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy, who had replaced Justice O’Connor in 2023, removed Judge Corrigan from the case on March 28, 2023. “Buehner’s case needs to move forward without any further unnecessary distractions,” she wrote.

The case was assigned to Judge William Vodrey.

Buehner’s retrial began on July 10, 2023. By then, Price and Edwards had each recanted their trial testimony. In his 2022 affidavit, Edwards said that although he was able to identify Price as the driver of the black truck, he was never certain about the shooter, and he told Detective Sahir Hasan about his uncertainty. He said Hasan told him that if Edwards wasn’t certain, then “it would be me going to jail.”

Edwards said he picked Buehner out of a live lineup because he noticed he had also been in the photo array. He said he testified about Buehner’s involvement based on Hasan’s remarks and the statements of Price and others that placed Buehner at the shooting. Edwards said in the affidavit that prior to the trial, the prosecutor told him he needed to be certain. Edwards said he told the prosecutor he wasn’t.

In his 2022 affidavit, Price told a different story. He said he wasn’t there. He was working a third shift and had no involvement in Saunders’s death. “My statement of December 26, 2001, and my testimony at trial against Michael Buehner were both false and were coerced by the detectives in exchange for me receiving a plea agreement. I did not witness Michael Buehner shoot Jerry Saunders as I was not present. I was told what to say in my statement and what to say during my testimony at trial.”

At the retrial, Price retracted his recantation and testified consistent with the first trial.

Edwards testified that he was always uncertain about the shooter but felt pressure from police and prosecutors to identify Buehner.

Hasan, now retired from the Cleveland Police Department, testified about the investigation. He said that Buehner became a suspect based on a tip from another officer’s confidential informant. Hasan said he never talked to the informant to assess his credibility.

Jurors also heard from Anderson, who said she saw a Black man shoot Saunders.

After less than two hours of deliberation, the jury acquitted Buehner on July 19, 2023.

“I want to say it was bittersweet just because it came so late,” Buehner told the Plain Dealer. “But it was just sweet. There was no bitter to it.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 8/14/2023
Last Updated: 8/14/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempted Murder
Reported Crime Date:2001
Sentence:18 to Life
Age at the date of reported crime:24
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No