What a headscratcher.
An Ohio man who spent 21 years in prison for an alleged crime that might not have occurred was awarded $1.3 million from the state following his wrongful conviction claim.
Ralph Blaine Smith, 49, always maintained his innocence. When his case was re-examined prosecutors couldn’t support with hard evidence the claims the alleged home invasion and robbery happened.
“There were times I couldn’t take another minute of being incarcerated, but I had to keep fighting though because I knew I was innocent,” Smith told station WSYX this week.
Smith’s life took a turn on Feb. 2, 2000, when a home in Pickerington, Ohio, roughly 30 miles south of Columbus, was allegedly robbed in a home invasion.
According to a lawsuit filed by Smith, the residents of the home described the alleged armed robbers as Black males wearing hats or hoods and masks which concealed their faces below their eyes.
The men asked the residents where their safe was and were told it was in the basement. Rudolph “Rudy” Valentino Stefanitsis and his wife Trisha were allegedly held at gunpoint as they made their way to the basement.
The intruders allegedly stole $11,000 to $12,000 in cash, an unspecified number of rare comic books worth over $4,000, $6,500 worth of jewelry and cellphones.
After 15 to 20 minutes, the intruders left the home, and the family went to a nearby relative’s home to call police.
One responding Pickerington officer’s initial impressions cast doubts about the veracity of the account the complainants gave to police.
“Despite fresh snowfall on the ground, which should have shown the robbers’ footprints and their vehicle tire tracks, no footprints or tracks were present,” Smith’s lawsuit documents describe one officer as writing in his report.
The police reports also indicated the house was “largely undisturbed.”
The following day the couple reportedly gave vague and contradicting descriptions of the two robbers. After claiming one robber’s mask slipped below his nose during the robbery also failed to give a satisfactory sketch of the robbers’ faces or describe the face coverings worn by the alleged intruders.
David Silvernail, a detective on the case, interviewed Dana Rowe, a person Rudy Stefanitsis initially listed as a possible suspect in the robbery. Rowe reportedly was shaking while being interviewed by police after being named a possible suspect. Rudy Stefanitsis later told Silvernail he was “certain of Dana Rowe’s involvement.”
Smith’s attorney accused Silvernail of failing to follow-up investigating Rowe after the interview.
Rowe was friends with Smith’s former girlfriend Mary Office, who implicated Smith to the Stefanitsis couple as the culprit in the robbery, Smith’s lawsuit claims.
As the investigation continued, Silvernail showed the victims a photo of Smith because the victims admitted they never saw him prior to their grand jury testimony. The victim’s eyewitness identification of Smith led a grand jury to indict him with two counts of aggravated robbery, two counts of kidnapping and one count of theft.
During Smith’s criminal trial in August 2000, he was the only one tried despite alleged two intruders invaded the home.
“Have you ever had any witness tell you that anyone other than the defendant [Smith] committed the crime?’ ‘No sir,’” Silvernail told the prosecutor, Gregg Marx.
The prosecution’s case relied on the victims identifying Smith from a photo because no other evidence linked him to the case.
The jury convicted Smith of his charges and he was sentenced to 67 years in prison.
Smith said he spent most of his time in prison studying case law to prove his innocence.
“I fought hard studying case law, reading the law books, just being there for hours and hours,” Smith said.
He went on to say his desire to prove his innocence is what kept him going.
Smith’s defense attorney, Joseph Landusky helped the case get a new trial amid growing suspicions evidence was withheld.
It was later revealed prosecutors did withhold evidence, most notably the initial narrative written by the officer who expressed skepticism a crime actually occurred.
“Officer [Gregory] Annis stated, among other matters, that despite fresh snowfall, there were no footprints on the driveway or front porch of the [victims]’s house consistent with the robbers’ prints, there were no tire tracks in the driveway consistent with the presence of the robbers’ car, the house was generally undisturbed,” the lawsuit said.
“The house was searched ‘too selectively for my taste,” added officer Gregory.
The officer noted that none of the victim’s neighbors saw a car at the time of the alleged robbery or heard anything unusual, and no dogs in the vicinity barked.
The officer implied the victims got their description of Smith from his former girlfriend who was “motivated to implicate him out of a desire for revenge.” Adding that pinning the alleged crime on Smith further shielded Smith’s ex-girlfriend and Rowe, whom the victims knew personally who had knowledge of the basement safe.
“When they went in and checked the house out, they wrote in their report that it was too selective for them,” Landusky said reiterated to reporters.
Smith got a new trial in June 2021. Judge Richard E. Berens ruled prosecutors at the time withheld evidence that suggested the crime never occurred according to the Columbus Dispatch. Withholding such evidence is indicative of a Brady violation, where prosecuting attorneys fail to share exculpatory evidence with the defense.
On July 2, 2021, Smith was released from prison on bond. He was later freed from his ankle monitor in September 2021.
“There are no words to describe how happy I am,” Smith told the Columbus Dispatch then.
In December 2022, Smith filed a wrongful imprisonment claim against the state in the Ohio Court of Claims. The state, Smith and his attorneys eventually agreed to the $1.3 million settlement which they plan to split.
“How can you replace 21 years in prison? You can’t. If I offered you 50 million dollars to go to prison now and get out in 21 years, there’s no amount of money that I could give you that you would do that,” Landusky said.
Smith plans to use the settlement money to care for his family.
“They helped me out a lot when I was incarcerated with visits and phone calls. I’d like to make things a little easier on them,” Smith said.
Although Smith is a free man and the settlement money helps right a wrong, his fight for justice is not finished.
He has a pending federal lawsuit filed on Feb. 7 against former Pickerington police officer, David Silvernail, former Fairfield County prosecutor Gregg Marx, the City of Pickerington, and Fairfield County.