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A Dissent: Melvin Bonnell and Declined Jurisdiction

By: Megan Patituce

Dissent has been a bedrock principle of American democracy even before the earliest rumblings of revolution began to take hold.  Often, a dissent is the only voice in the room, standing when others sit.  Whether a shout or a whisper, dissent deserves thoughtful consideration, even by those who stand shoulder-to-shoulder in disagreement.

Justice Donnelly’s dissent in State v. Bonnell, Case No. 2020-0210, 2019-Ohio-5342, stands apart in an otherwise routine Ohio Supreme Court decision declining jurisdiction.  The State of Ohio intends to put Mr. Bonnell to death.  Mr. Bonnell, fighting for his life, has maintained his innocence for decades.  His defense team has relentlessly pursued post-conviction avenues.  Through their efforts, credible documentation of evidentiary flaws and questionable eye-witness testimony have been uncovered.  Despite this, the trial court denied Mr. Bonnell’s motions in an entry that “was a verbatim repetition of the findings of fact and conclusions of law that were proposed by the state.”

Justice Donnelly argued that the Ohio Supreme Court should have accepted jurisdiction as the emphatic actual innocence claims, problematic evidentiary issues, and looming execution make Mr. Bonnell’s case one of public and great general interest.  Specifically, he noted “the problem of giving short shrift to defendants’ postconviction litigation efforts and rejecting them through judgment entries authored by a prosecuting attorney” which exists not only in Ohio but across the country.

Courts prize finality.  Prosecutors defend their convictions at all costs.  Although zealous representation of convicted murderers often garners disdain, those dedicated to such advocacy are engaged in a literal life-or-death struggle, often uncovering long-forgotten constitutional violations and raising evidentiary concerns in new light as science and psychology evolve.  As Justice Donnelly’s dissent makes clear, the significant evidentiary and constitutional questions raised in Mr. Bonnell’s case warrant meaningful review.

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