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The Ronald Tijerina Story

In Defiance of Justice

Despite government threats, accuser recants; Judge says who cares?

Benefits given to those who "acknowledge" being an abuse victim

Defiance County, Ohio has fewer than 40,000 people in its 414 square miles. It has one judge and a part-time prosecuter. On January 31, 1997 a hearing was held in Defiance to request a new trial based on evidence recently discovered by the defense. Ron Tijerina had been convicted of sexually abusing his wife's brother, Dan Mohr. The original evidence against Tijerina had consisted on medical records which showed that Mohr's behavioral problems had begun about the time that he alleged Tijerina abused him. This "proof" may sound scant, but in response to concerns that it is often difficult to prosecute sexual abuse cases, courts have tended toward lenient evidence standards in these cases.

However, Cathy Tijerina, who is Tijerina's wife and Mohr's sister, knew that Mohr's problems had predated his meeting Tijerina by at least four years. And, while Mohr alleged that his problems had begun when he had come to live with Cathy and Ron, Cathy knew that the reason he had been there in the first place was that his parents had thrown him out because of his drug use. Today, Cathy knows even more. Her brother recanted to her and in a written deposition which can be introduced if a new trial is permitted.

On the day of the hearing, the Defiance County Courthouse was filled with supporters for the petitioner, Ron Tijerina, most of them members of the Pentecostal Church to which the Tijerinas belong. As Defiance County's only judge, Joseph Schmenk, had heard the original case, Judge Sumner Walters of nearby Van Wert County was chosen to preside over the hearing. And as the County's Prosecutor Jeffrey Strausbaugh had been Tijerina's court-appointed defense attorney (only 14 months before his election), a Special Prosecutor, Daniel Gerschutz of Putnam County, Ohio represented the State. Having been denied both a new trial and an appeal, Tijerina's attorneys now requested the hearing based on prosecutorial misconduct and inefffective counsel.

Tijerina's pro-bono attorney, Joseph Loeffler, called Cathy Tijerina to the stand. Cathy testified that after Ron's conviction, Loeffler had requested all of the files relevant to the case, including the Defiance County Prosecutor's file, the Fulton County Prosecutor's file and the Court of Claims file on which victim compensation payments had been made. Loeffler had then told Cathy to look through the files for any information that might prove Ron's innocence.

[A lawyer appears "pro bono" when he takes the case without compensation. It is short for "pro bono publico," Latin for "for the public good."]

Cathy had turned up several pages of documents which she had not heard of or seen before. They dealt with three issues; Mohr's interview in Fulton County, based on a report to Child Protective Services made by a therapist in a drug rehabilitation clinic where Mohr had bee an inpatient. The report said that Mohr had disclosed sexual abuse, which had been found insufficient to warrent an arrest, because his story had been inconsistent and not believable; school, mental health and drug treatment records which showed that Mohr had begun to demonstrate problem behaviors long before he had met Tijerina, and records of over $46,000 in victim compensation payments made to Dan's mother, to reimburse her for the portion of Mohr's past treatment bills which had not been covered by her insurance. Cathy had also found a cover letter from the Fulton County Prosecutor, noting that he was forwarding Mohr's Fulton County interview and complete treatment records to the Defiance County Prosecutor.

The missing information is extremely damaging to Mohr's testimony. The reporting and treatment records, when considered together, show that Mohr had not "disclosed" sexual abuse until he was about to be discharged from an in-patient drug rehabilitation center, where he was informed that he could be transferred to the center's mental health unit, if he "acknowledged" being abused, in which case the state's crime victim compensation program would pay for his treatment. Mrs Mohr was reimbursed not only for Dan's then -current treatment, but for past treatment for durg abuse. Yet victim compensation programs rarely pay for drug treatment, so Mohr's treatment may not have been eligible for reimbursement in the first place, and may have been misrepresented as mental health treatment. But the circumstances also suggest that rather than masterminding a plot to wrongfully charge her son-in-law with a crime. Mrs Mohr and Dan may have simply welcomed a way of meeting their bills which also shifted the blame for Dan's behavior from them--and coincidentally shifted it to someone they disliked.

Mohr's ex-wife testified that Mohr had told her that Victim Assistance Advocate Sally King had warned him that if he recanted he would be charged with perjury and his mother would have to repay the compensation fund. Then current Defiance County Prosecutor Jeffery Stausbaugh testified that as Ron Tijerina's public defender, his goal had been to attack Mohr's credibility, while he could not recall having seen the items Cathy considered strategically omitted from the trial, he admitted that they would have been useful to the defense.

Next, Dr. Melvin Guyer, a professor of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan who also holds a doctorate in law, and who has extensive expertise in interviewing methods and th trustworthiness of allegations, testified. He had reviewed the newly-discovered medical records and explained that they were indicative of someone extremely suggestible with a strong desire to please and a desire to blame others for his problems. A second expert witness, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington and a noted expert on human memory, testified tht Mohr's testimony was highly suspect and appeared to be coached. Both she and Dr. Guyer responded under cross-examination that they were testifying in this case pro bono.

Sally King then testified that she had developed the Victim Assistance Program in the Defiance County Prosecutor's Office with then-Prosecutor Peter Seibel's enthusiastic support. She admitted that, although her grant had required that the person who filled her role have a B.A. in Criminal Justice or four years experience in operating a similar program, that she had had neither. She also noted that the Mohr family had been her first case, and that she had met with them over 100 times.

Since the development of "advocacy" programs to assist victims in filing for compensation, which are mandatory if states want federal matching funds, there have been debates about whether these programs should be placed in prosecutor's offices. Concerns about victims' comfort in such settings as well as possible conflicts between the role of prosecutors (presumably advocates for justice) and advocates for victims have been expressed, but the major concern had been that it is unclear whether information in the victim assistance file can be kept confidential, because any information in the prosecutor's file which might prove the innocence of a defendant must be made available to the defense. While programs in prosecutor's offices have been permitted (due to heavy lobbying by District Attorneys and Attorneys General), many jurisdictions have chosen not to house programs there to avoid conflicts of interest.

Given these confusion, it might be legitimate for a program to refuse all requests for information from either prosecution or defense, or to agree to both. But Ms. King admitted to providing information to the Prosecutor and not to the defense, although her file had held information which might have proved Tijerina's innocence.

The final witness, former Defiance County Prosecutor Peter Seibel, explained that as prosecutor he had viewed his job as not to get convictions, but to get evidence before juries. Asked about Ms. King he explained that he had met her when she had come to his office selling copy machines.

She had offered to help develop a Victim Assistance Program in his office, but he had agreed to support the development of such a program only if it was not placed in his office. Seible had agreed to support Sally King's request for grant funds, however because he believed that any funds would be helpful to his economically depressed community.

This case exemplifies why, while efforts are being made to limit appeals, if such limitations are permitted, they should be inversely keyed to the severity of the charges and sentences and the seriousness of the reasons for the appeal. We need not reopen every case in which an "i" goes undotted or a "t" uncrossed; but we must not limit appeals when original trials were clearly unfair. Futhermore, we must be especially willing to reopen cases based on charges of sexual abuse which were brought when questionable and limited "evidence" presented without expert rebuttal, was permitted to place people in prisons for a long time, often life sentences-evidence which has since been questioned and in many cases, even disproven.

We must also require that, if victim assistance programs are permitted to continue operating in prosecutor's offices, guidelines be established to ensure the autonomy of the programs and the training of their staffs. There must be clarification of the confidentiality, if any, of victim assistance records, as well as the right of the defense to obtain them. We must also reevaluate how we reimburse counseling and drug treatment, because as long as some people lack insurance, they will try to obtain coverage from alternative benefits. We must not allow this financial desperation to result in false charges of crimes, especially sex crimes, which are at least as stigmatizing to the falsely accused as they are to their real victims.

But even if we make future changes to appellate law, sex crime investigations and victim assistance programs, many people will remain stuck in a system that lacked experience and competence at the time of their original trials. Cathy and Ron's older son would become upset when he said "goodbyes" to his father in prison visiting room, until Ron suggested "No more goodbyes, From now on, we just say, "Next time." And I wounder, if there has been defiance of justice, doesn't Ron Tijerina and don't all prisons like him, deserve a "next time?"

Note; On Friday, April 25, 1997, Judge Sumner Walters refused Tijerina's request for a new trial, finding no evidence of prosecutorial misconduct and refusing to consider any of the newly-discovered evidence.

Story submitted by Norberta Tijerina

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