Nearly 30 years after Dale Johnston was freed from death row, the family is still trying to pick up the pieces

Dale Johnston didn't do it.

He didn't shoot and kill his stepdaughter and her fiance in Hocking County in October of 1982. He didn't mutilate their bodies and dispose of their torsos in the Hocking River and their heads and limbs in a cornfield.

But right after the victims' remains were found in southeast Ohio that fall, the Logan Police Department and Hocking County Sheriff's Office homed in on Johnston, who was, quite literally, an outsider.

Several years before the murders, Johnston and his wife, Sarah, fell in love, left their previous marriages and moved from Xenia, Ohio, to a 53-acre farm situated on an unpaved road about 10 miles from downtown Logan. Dale was a country boy and loved being outdoors. He and Sarah occasionally embraced a clothing-optional lifestyle on the secluded property. Along with Sarah's two daughters, Michelle and Annette Cooper, the Johnstons lived in tents until their trailer arrived. A barn housed horses that drank from a stream running through the property.

Annette was 18 when she was found dismembered with her 19-year-old fiance, Todd Schultz. Rumors began circulating that Annette's stepfather had molested her and must have killed her and Schultz in a jealous rage. Dale, Sarah and Michelle denied all the accusations, but Logan police and prosecutors insisted on a theory that Dale had shot and killed the teens at his farm, butchered them, bagged their bodies, threw their torsos in the river and buried the rest of the remains in a cornfield.

In September of 1983, Johnston was arrested and charged with two counts of aggravated murder. In January of 1984, a three-judge panel found him guilty, and that March he was sentenced to die in the electric chair.

“There was an astounding lack of physical evidence in this case,” said Bill Osinski, a reporter who covered the murder trial for the Akron Beacon Journal and left no stone unturned in his 2012 book about the case, “Guilty by Popular Demand.” “The investigation had been poisoned by rumors and gossip. … The people had to have blood for blood. They wanted somebody to pay, and Dale Johnston was the best option. He didn't have friends in town. Didn't go to church in town. Didn't belong to any clubs. He just hung out there in his trailer out in the hills.”

In 1988, the Ohio Supreme Court ordered a new trial for Johnston based partly on evidence the prosecution withheld, including eyewitness testimony that could have placed the murders at the cornfield (not on Johnston's property), as well as testimony that should have been disallowed since it was brought about by hypnosis.

Johnston was freed in 1990, but his 1993 wrongful imprisonment claim was denied. Then, in 2008, Chester McKnight, aka “Chester the Molester,” pleaded guilty to the murders. But even though the courts accepted McKnight's guilty plea, Johnston still hasn't received a cent from the state for the years he spent on death row. Decades of litigation have resulted in numerous decisions, appeals and reversals of decisions, and in June, Attorney General Mike DeWine opposed a provision in the most recent budget bill that would have given Johnston the right to seek damages.

Johnson is now 84 and in declining health. He still loves the outdoors, but he has trouble remembering much from his past. “Memory is a wonderful thing, and I sure miss mine,” Johnston said in late August at his Grove City home.

As damaging as the wrongful conviction and imprisonment have been to Johnston, this miscarriage of justice has left other victims in its wake, particularly the woman who never stopped insisting on her husband's innocence, even as spectators in the Hocking County courthouse cheered at his guilty verdict — Johnston's ex-wife, Sarah Brown Mora.

TIMELINE

II.

Syracuse sits on the Ohio River, which runs along the West Virginia border in southeast Ohio. The Meigs County village is about a square mile and home to fewer than 1,000 people. On one of Syracuse's nondescript side roads, a heavily dented blue sedan with missing side mirror sits in front of a duplex with unpainted, water-stained wood siding.

Inside, 72-year-old Sarah Mora holds her lap dog, Charm, in an overstuffed chair next to her husband, David Mora, in the rental unit's tiny living room. A TV plays on mute while Sarah, wearing a blue T-shirt emblazoned with a wolf howling at the moon, describes the fall of 1982.

Before she even had a chance to grieve over her older daughter's brutal murder, Sarah sensed more suffering on the horizon. “You know they're gonna come after you because you're the stepdad,” she told Dale in the early days of the investigation.

Sure enough, Logan police interrogated Dale Johnston for 14 hours, stripping him down to his underwear and demanding that he admit to killing Schultz and his stepdaughter, according to Johnston's current attorney, Jim Owen of Koenig & Long. (The interrogation was not recorded.) Sarah and her younger daughter, 14-year-old Michelle, were also repeatedly questioned.

“Michelle was kept for eight hours one time. Nothing to eat, no bathroom breaks,” Sarah said. “Just grilled and grilled and grilled until she finally just shut down. She couldn't take it anymore. They couldn't get anything out of her. … They wanted her to say, ‘Yeah, I was there. I witnessed this, and they killed Annette, and my mom cut her up.'”

The day Johnston was arrested for the murders, authorities also removed Michelle from her home. “They said she was in danger — that I might kill her,” Sarah said. “Taking Michelle away was pretty devastating for both of us. We needed each other.” (Michelle declined to comment for this story.)

With her husband in jail, Annette in the grave and Michelle in foster care, Sarah spent her nights alone in the trailer. She fretted over who killed Annette, but even more so she feared the police. She thought they would arrest her for being an accomplice to the murders. “I was watched all the time,” she said. “There was one particular person who followed me around, constantly driving up and down the road.”

Sarah was let go from her job at a doctor's office. Her car insurance was canceled. “I was ostracized in town. People didn't want me in their stores. … I would have panic attacks. I had one where I saw a sweater that reminded me of Annette,” she said as Charm licked tears from her face. “I could just see her in that top. It was like she was still going to be there.”

After Johnston's guilty verdict was handed down, Sarah was in shock. “I just died. I went stone cold,” she said. Over the next year, her emotions spiraled downward. She lost all hope and, along with it, her grip on reality. She began having hallucinations in which dismembered body parts floated in the air around her.

“I was in my therapist's office, and I told him, ‘Nothing matters anymore,'” she said. “I didn't see any light at the end of the tunnel. I didn't want to live without Dale.”

It felt like all of Logan was conspiring against her. She began to focus on the power brokers in town, reading conspiratorial subtexts into their meetings.

“I planned to kill 26 people that I had thought were involved in Annette being killed. There was a group of attorneys and doctors. One was running for office,” she said. “I knew where they met, and I was going to kill all of them. I had C-4, and I was going to put it all around the building. And I had several guns. One was an assault rifle. I was going to kill anybody that got out.”

Sarah relayed some of her plans to her therapist, who alerted the authorities. They committed her to a mental hospital. “When they admitted me, they said I was homicidal, suicidal, paranoid schizophrenic and bipolar,” she said.

Looking back, Sarah is grateful for the seven months she spent with mental health professionals who helped bring her back from the ledge. “I needed to be safe,” she said.

Around the time Sarah was released from the hospital in 1986, someone burned down her trailer, and because of court costs, there was also a lien on the Johnstons' farm. So she moved to the remote village of Amesville in Athens County for a time, and Michelle, now legally an adult after cycling through foster families, eventually joined her. They rode horses together.

While in prison, Johnston realized his marriage to Sarah was hindering her ability to move on. “She just couldn't get away from the case. They'd done such a number on her, and everywhere she went it was like, ‘Ohhh, Johnston…,'” said Bryan Corbett, Dale's son-in-law. “Dale remembers saying to her, ‘I would rather have a friend who is healthy and able to maintain herself than to have a wife who commits suicide.'”

The couple divorced in 1986 but remained friends, joined forever by tragedy. “The day [Dale] was released from prison [in 1990], she was there,” Corbett said. “Neither she nor Michelle, under intense pressure to cough up something incriminating on Dale, never once doubted his innocence.”

In Amesville, Sarah realized she needed a college degree to get a job that would enable her to consistently pay her rent. She enrolled at Hocking College and also worked as an employee in the school's financial aid department. “It made me feel really good that someone thought I was worthy of a job,” she said.

While at Hocking, Sarah met husband David Mora and earned degrees in business administration and accounting. After graduating, she got a job at the Gallipolis branch of Woodland Centers, a mental health agency where she worked for 17 years.

These days, Sarah attends five support groups to help manage the anger and anxiety stemming from emotional wounds that still feel fresh. “I never got to grieve,” she said. “It was many, many years later that I finally broke down. And I'm still grieving.”

Art therapy has helped, too. “It totally gets your mind off of everything because you're so interested in what you're making,” she said, and pointed to a kitchen table strewn with art supplies. Abstract paintings and fantastical images of horses from an adult coloring book adorn the walls.

To this day, the sight of law enforcement triggers waves of panic in her. “Every time a cop comes near me, my stomach drops out,” she said. “I just know they've arrested [Dale] again and now they're after me.”

III.

Before Dale Johnston was sentenced to death in 1984, he had a wife, kids and owned 53 acres with no debt. When he was released from prison in 1990, he had nothing. Other than an old pickup truck given to him by his former lawyer, Bob Suhr, he had only the clothes he wore.

Johnston went to live with his mother in the village of Ashville in Pickaway County, 20 miles south of Columbus. But it didn't feel like a fresh start. “His verdict was not set aside with prejudice. It was just set aside, meaning [law enforcement] could have come and arrested him again at any time,” Corbett said. “He lived with the possibility of being rearrested and retried and convicted all over again.”

The cloud of Johnston's prior conviction followed him everywhere. In the minds of many in southeast Ohio, Johnston was still guilty; he just got out on a legal technicality. And even if he didn't do it, some still assumed he molested his stepdaughter before her death. (“Any allegation that's been possible to disprove has been disproved, and if there was any incest, Michelle and Sarah certainly would have known about it or heard about it,” said Owen, Johnston's attorney. “The answer is just no.”)

The courts were no different. The state no longer had a case against Johnston because of evidence that was previously withheld from the defense, and also because of testimony that was deemed inadmissible, but that didn't mean he was innocent. The court's denial of his first wrongful imprisonment claim in 1993 said as much.

Like Sarah, Johnston tried to move on with his life. While in prison, he committed his life to Jesus, and after his release he found an accepting community at his church. He became head usher at First Baptist Grove City, and the church found ways for Johnston to use the carpentry skills he learned from his father to serve the congregation.

First Baptist congregant Roberta Crocker took a liking to the head usher. “He was always walking around, counting all the people in the congregation,” said Roberta, now 83. “He was a handsome dude.”

In 1998, as Roberta and Johnston's relationship grew more serious, Roberta's son-in-law Bryan Corbett (also a First Baptist pastor) began asking questions about the rumors he'd heard. “I heard him talking about [the maximum-security prison in] Lucasville,” Corbett said. “It dawned on me that he was not just in prison. He was on death row. So I said, ‘Tell me about it.' And in five or 10 minutes he gave me the whole story. That's a lot to comprehend. I'm thinking, ‘Gosh, I don't know if I believe you or not.' Dale's gaunt mannerisms are a little off-putting, so some people look at him and go, ‘You just look guilty to me,' as if that's evidence.”

Corbett's doubts were eventually assuaged, and he gave the relationship his blessing. Roberta and Dale were married in June of 2000 and moved to a home in Grove City in 2004. In 2008, Chester McKnight, already in prison for sex crimes, confessed to the murder of Annette Cooper and Todd Schultz. Authorities came to Johnston's home, asking him if he had any connection to McKnight. Johnston didn't, and McKnight later passed a polygraph and gave investigators information that only someone with close knowledge of the murders could have known.

Another man, Kenny Linscott, helped McKnight carve up the bodies. A 2009 Columbus Dispatch story reported that Linscott cut his right arm to the bone the night of the murders, and in Osinski's book, he writes that Linscott made a suspicious phone call to police before the bodies were found. (Linscott was initially charged with aggravated murder but later pleaded guilty to abuse of a corpse; he was released in 2009 after spending less than a year in jail.)

Plus, there were the eyewitness accounts that would have helped to clear Dale's name had the prosecution turned over the statements. “That evidence shouldn't have been ignored. It was important, and it all pointed to what turned out to be the real killers,” Corbett said. “They could have solved this case so quickly and so easily if they were really interested in the real killers.”

McKnight was sentenced to two life terms on Dec. 18, 2008. “That was a great day for Dale, because then there was no doubt. Everyone knew he was innocent,” Corbett said. “And he wasn't guilty and then innocent. He was always innocent.”

Dale Johnston didn't do it, but when it comes to paying him for his time on death row, McKnight's guilty verdict is still not enough to satisfy Attorney General Mike DeWine.

IV.

In the 1988 Ohio Supreme Court decision that granted Johnston a new trial, justice Ralph Locher quoted an applicable decision in a prior case, writing, “Our reading of the evidence shows there is a real possibility that the wrong man is to be executed. In such a case, [the defendant] should receive the benefit of the doubt.”

While that logic freed Dale Johnston, it failed in winning him compensation in 1993. But after the confession of McKnight, as well as a 2003 amendment to Ohio's wrongful imprisonment statute, Johnston seemed to have another shot at a claim.

In 2003, Republican Rep. Bill Seitz of Cincinnati and Democratic Rep. Barbara Sykes of Akron collaborated on a bill to update the wrongful imprisonment statute with an inflation-adjusted amount for compensation — about $52,000 per year. It also extended the right to recovery not just to those who could prove innocence by DNA or other means, but also to former prisoners who were released as a result of procedural errors.

“The idea was, there are other kinds of grave constitutional violations of one's rights that can result in you being wrongfully imprisoned,” Seitz said. For instance, if the prosecution withheld evidence that could have prevented conviction, then a prisoner's constitutional rights have been violated.

Johnston launched a second wrongful imprisonment claim based on procedural error at the end of 2008, and since then the case has kicked around the courts in a series of decisions, appeals and reversals. Last year the Franklin County Court of Appeals ruled against Johnston for the second time. Johnston again appealed, but in June the Ohio Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal.

Right now, a 2014 Ohio Supreme Court case, Mansaray v. State, appears to be an insurmountable legal hurdle for Johnston. The decision redefined how Ohio's courts are to interpret Seitz's 2003 wrongful imprisonment statute. In light of Mansaray, the appeals court wrote, “Johnston's claim for wrongful imprisonment is barred as a matter of law.”

“All of the good work we had hoped to accomplish through our 2003 effort was rendered for naught” because of the Mansaray decision, said House Majority Leader Seitz. “The Supreme Court construed our statute as being limited only to errors in procedure that occurred subsequent to sentencing. That's certainly not what we meant. What we meant was the error in procedure had to have been discovered subsequent to your sentencing, not that it had to have occurred subsequent to your sentencing.”

“It's a drafting error that somehow slipped by,” said Michelle Feldman of the University of Cincinnati College of Law's Ohio Innocence Project. “Because of the bad interpretation by the Supreme Court, they're saying that the constitutional error has to happen after somebody's sentence. And that almost never happens in wrongful convictions. It happens before you're sentenced.”

Though Johnston is about out of legal options, a glimmer of hope surfaced this spring when Seitz introduced an amendment to the state's budget bill that would counteract Mansaray. But the wording was removed from the bill at the last minute after Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Brian Gutkoski, who represented the state in the Mansaray case, voiced opposition to the provision, and his concerns made their way to the office of Attorney General DeWine, who's currently campaigning to fill the shoes of outgoing Gov. John Kasich.

“[Gutkoski] started to raise holy hell, claiming this would result in tens of millions of dollars of expense to the state and [saying], ‘This is terrible. Convicted rapists and criminals would go free and collect money,'” Seitz said. “We had answers for all of that. … [But] when Mike DeWine got involved and started squawking about this, I think some people got nervous and said, ‘OK, OK.'”

Gutkoski did not respond to repeated requests for comment. DeWine also declined to comment, instead directing Alive to identical letters he sent to House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger and Senate President Larry Obhof, which outlined his opposition to the provisions. DeWine states that the amendment could cost the state millions in payment to “claimants who are released on any technicality.” He also lists hypothetical examples, such as a child rapist getting a conviction overturned by a procedural error.

“If this language is enacted,” DeWine wrote, “Ohio's wrongful imprisonment statute, which already is the most liberal in the country, would become even broader and more expansive.”

Neither Seitz nor the Ohio Innocence Project is convinced by DeWine's arguments. “Why would it cost tens of millions when it certainly didn't cost tens of millions of dollars between 2003, when the new law came into effect, and 2014, when the Supreme Court came up with this interesting interpretation in the Mansaray case?” Seitz said. “[Opponents] say, ‘This will result in convicted criminals collecting money.' Well, that's the whole point, isn't it? If the government violated their constitutional rights and introduced evidence that was illegally seized or withheld evidence that was plainly exculpatory, we don't know if they would have been convicted, do we?”

“The way [DeWine's letter] is written is so misleading,” Feldman said, arguing that the provision is not for “any technicality” but rather for constitutional violations. “It is very difficult to prove that a constitutional violation occurred, but a lot of times that's the only way a wrongful conviction can be overturned. … A constitutional violation means the state did something very bad and violated your rights, and it's the only way to hold people accountable in the system.”

Since the removal of the wrongful imprisonment language from the budget bill, the Ohio Innocence Project and Rep. Seitz have teamed up to draft a new, separate bill with more specific language that Feldman said they hope to introduce on Oct. 2, which is, not coincidentally, Wrongful Conviction Day.

V.

Sarah Mora isn't pursuing legal action for her years of suffering, but she holds out hope for Johnston. “I just wish the courts weren't so contrary,” she said. “I think he should get a million dollars for every year he spent on death row.”

No amount of money can erase Johnston's imprisonment or the years of finger-pointing and suspicion that he, Sarah and Michelle have endured. And nothing, of course, can bring back Annette Cooper and Todd Schultz. But his family members and legal team continue to fight.

“Dale is in the prison of Alzheimer's disease. His memories are sinking into a past where he was forgotten by the system,” Roberta's daughter, Angela Corbett, wrote in an August letter to the Columbus Dispatch. “He should be allowed the peace that he has fought for so hard all these years.”

Bryan Corbett and Johnston's lawyer, Jim Owen, see an even larger principle at play. “If all elements of society can't have confidence that our criminal justice system works pretty damn well, then how can we expect them to obey the law?” Owen said. “How can we expect them to show up for court? To talk to the police?”

Corbett said he's a pro-police, law-and-order type of guy. “The police are our friends. I respect them. But this is a case where they zeroed in on a suspect, and the evidence wasn't there, but they manufactured it,” he said. “This erodes confidence in our law enforcement, which is very dangerous to a society. In cases like this, where they clearly messed up, it's better to take the medicine and say, ‘You know what? This was a mistake. Let's correct it. Let's restore the confidence in our system.'”