In December, outgoing Gov. John Kasich signed HB411, a wrongful imprisonment bill that clears the way for compensation for unjustly convicted and incarcerated Ohioans like Dale Johnston, who spent six years on death row for crimes he didn't commit
Last month, a significant but little-talked-about piece of legislation made its way through Ohio’s lame-duck session and onto the desk of former Gov. John Kasich. On Dec. 12, the Senate passed House Bill 411, a bipartisan wrongful imprisonment bill the House previously passed in June. While Kasich’s vetoes of the “heartbeat” bill and a gun bill made the biggest headlines in December, he also signed HB 411.
With that signature, Dale Johnston now has a good chance of getting compensated for the time he spent on death row for a murder he didn’t commit.
In the fall of 2017, Alive explored the tragic, decades-long saga of Dale Johnston, who was accused of killing his stepdaughter and her fiance and mutilating their bodies in 1982 near Logan in Southeast Ohio. Johnson was arrested and in 1984 was sentenced to die in the electric chair. He spent six years on death row until his conviction was overturned in 1990. In 2008, Chester McKnight pleaded guilty to the crimes.
And yet Johnston, who's now just a few years away from 90 and living in Grove City, never received a penny for the time he unjustly served. The reasons are long and complicated and filled with head-scratching moments, but in recent years, legal hurdles stemming from a 2014 Ohio Supreme Court case (Mansaray v. State) stood in his way. This new law removes those hurdles by addressing cases in which a person was convicted despite a "Brady violation," which is when prosecutors illegally withhold evidence that could point to another perpetrator. And that is one of the many things that happened in Johnston's case.
There was another hurdle, too. It's possible that if HB411 hadn't made it to Kasich's desk in December, it would have languished for the next four years. When incoming Gov. Mike DeWine was attorney general, he opposed the bill, claiming it would cost the state millions in payments to "claimants who are released on any technicality." When Republican Rep. Bill Seitz, an HB411 co-sponsor, introduced similar legislation in spring of 2017, it was yanked at the last minute.
"When Mike DeWine got involved and started squawking about this, I think some people got nervous and said, ‘OK, OK,’” Seitz said in 2017.
Johnston's attorney, Jim Owen, said he'll know more about next steps for Johnston's case later this month.