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Eric Brunner

Other Ohio exonerations
On the night of January 13, 1996, 24-year-old Eric Brunner and his fiancé went to the C & S bar in downtown Canton, Ohio. During the evening, Brunner, who had been drinking, got into an argument with his fiancé, Raina Wilson. Wilson left the bar alone and drove home around 2:30 a.m.

Their home was about 45 minutes walking distance from C & S. Brunner walked to the home of his 22-year-old first cousin, T.W. Her home, on Seventh Street NE, was located between the bar and Brunner’s home. He knocked on the door not long after 3 a.m. T.W. let him in. Also in the house was 22-year-old D.D., who had known Brunner for years.

T.W. and D.D. had been at the Chandelier Club, another bar, that same evening. T.W. later said she had one mixed drink, and D.D. said she did not drink any alcohol. They had arrived home not long before Brunner arrived.

According to the women, Brunner was drunk and slurring his words. T.W. got a comforter from her bedroom and fell asleep on the couch as they watched television. D.D. also fell asleep on the love seat.

D.D. later told police that she woke up as Brunner rubbed her breasts. She said the television and lights were off, but she could tell it was him because he was close, was wearing the same clothes, and he was the only one there. She said she yelled, “Back up, Eric,” which caused him to stop and lie down on the floor. D.D. said she went back to sleep, but woke up again as Brunner, with his pants down, was trying to get on top of her. She said she elbowed Brunner off and fled to T.W.’s bedroom and locked the door. She said Brunner tried to open the door, but when she yelled at him, he gave up.

T.W. told police that between 4:30 and 5:00 a.m., she awoke to find Brunner on top of her with his pants down, restraining her arms and licking her face. Although the lights were out, she knew it was Brunner because she saw and felt his braids, smelled his cologne, and he was face to face with her. She said Brunner reeked of alcohol. She said Brunner had unbuckled her pants while she was asleep, and that he held her down while he took off her pants.

T.W. said she tried to fight Brunner off and that she yelled for help. But Brunner covered her mouth with his mouth. She said she pushed and scratched to no avail—he was wearing a shirt and her press-on nails fell off easily. She said he penetrated her vaginally with his penis. The assault was over in “a couple of minutes,” ending when “I got him up off of me. I got up and ran.” She suffered an abrasion to her left side.

T.W. said she banged on her bedroom door, which was still locked. D.D. opened the door, let her in, and they remained there behind the locked door until Brunner left.

Later that day, January 14, 1996, T.W. told D.D. what happened to her. At first, T.W. said that Brunner only attempted to rape her, but later, T.W. told D.D. that she had been raped.

The women called the police. A rape kit was collected from T.W. She told the nurse, Tracy Addams, that she “believed” Brunner “probably” ejaculated, though she was not certain because the assault was so brief. T.W. said she had a consensual encounter with her boyfriend about five days before.

Brunner told police he was at the house, but denied sexually assaulting them. He said he left about 15 minutes after he arrived. He agreed to give blood and saliva samples.

On January 29, 1996, Brunner was arrested. He was charged with one count of rape of T.W. and one count of attempted rape of D.D.

In May 1996, Brunner went to trial in the Stark County Court of Common Pleas. T.W. and D.D. recounted once more what they said happened.

Serologist Michelle Mitchell, from the Canton-Stark Crime Laboratory testified that an analysis of the vaginal swab from T.W.’s rape kit revealed a small quantity of seminal fluid and two dead sperm. She testified that the sample showed only markers consistent with T.W.’s blood type, so no male could be excluded as the source of the semen and sperm.

“[W]e really can’t exclude anybody,” Mitchell testified.

“So, since you are assuming that the unknown sample comes from [T.W.], that anybody in the whole world basically is a potential suspect in this matter,” Brunner’s defense attorney asked.

“[W]e really can’t exclude anybody…” Mitchell replied.

Other items collected from T.W., including her clothes, nails, underwear, the couch cushion, and the comforter were negative for the presence of semen based on an acid phosphatase test.

At the time, the crime laboratory did not perform DNA testing. While the FBI did do such testing, Mitchell testified that it did not have the capability to accurately compare two close relatives—T.W. and Brunner. The rape kit was not tested against T.W.’s boyfriend.

Brunner’s fiancé testified that he arrived home before 6:30 a.m. She didn’t remember the exact time, but said she had to be at work between 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. and that Brunner woke her in time to go to work. She said the weather was wintry—it was cold, and snow was falling. She said that she and Brunner had driven to the C & S bar, so they had not worn coats.

On May 22, 1996, the jury convicted Brunner of rape and attempted rape. He was sentenced to nine to 40 years in prison. In 1997, his convictions were upheld on appeal.

In August 2004, a hearing was held to determine whether Brunner would be declared a sexual predator. In September 2004, Brunner filed a request for DNA testing. The motion was granted, but the tests were declared inconclusive—the testing agency said the tests revealed only T.W.’s DNA.

After the hearing, Brunner was declared a sexual predator, which meant he would be required to register as a sex offender upon his release. That ruling was upheld on appeal in March 2005.

In 2008, the Columbus Dispatch newspaper published a series of articles documenting problems with DNA testing in Ohio, including opposition by prosecutors. The series, titled A Test of Our Convictions, included profiles of cases that seemed ripe for further testing, including Brunner’s case.

On January 5, 2009, Brunner was released on parole and required to register regularly as a sex offender.

In 2019, Ohio Innocence Project Professor of Clinical Law Brian Howe and his student team successfully argued for DNA testing of evidence secured at the time of the crime. Advances in DNA technology allowed for more precise testing of the evidence. The tests excluded Brunner as the source of the DNA in T.W.’s rape kit.

Howe then filed a motion for a new trial, contending that the test results exonerated Brunner. The Stark County Prosecutor’s Office opposed the motion. On December 3, 2021, the trial court granted Brunner a new trial on the rape conviction, but denied the motion for a new trial on the attempted rape conviction involving D.D. The judge ruled that “the presence of sperm was never part of the State’s case regarding the attempted rape of D.D. Rather [that conviction was based on] D.D’s prior knowledge of and familiarity with Brunner, Brunner’s admitted presence at the residence…and the assailant’s response to D.D.’s request to ‘back up Eric.’”

Howe appealed. On August 30, 2022, the Ohio Court of Appeals, Fifth Appellate District, reversed the denial of a new trial on the attempted rape charge. The appeals court ruled that the prosecution’s theory was that Brunner committed both crimes. “If a new jury would find, based on the new DNA evidence that [Brunner] did not commit the charge of rape against T.W., the same jury could likely find that [Bruner] did not commit the crime of attempted rape against D.D.,” the court declared.

Informed of the ruling, Brunner told the Dispatch: "Maybe this is finally happening, maybe people [are] finally going to believe me. They locked me up for something I never did, and it's been hanging over me all these years. I hope this means my name and record will be cleared."

He told the Dispatch that about two years after he was released on parole, he was attacked by men related to one of the victims. He said a beer bottle was smashed over his head, and he was kicked and beaten. Brunner said he went to police to file charges, but the officers laughed at him. He had surgery requiring the insertion of metal plates into his face and skull.

On September 1, 2023, the prosecution dismissed the case.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/26/2023
Last Updated: 10/26/2023
Most Serious Crime:Sexual Assault
Additional Convictions:Attempt, Violent
Reported Crime Date:1996
Sentence:9 to 40 years
Age at the date of reported crime:24
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes