|Toledo Catholic Priest Gerald Robinson's Conviction Reaffirmed
By David Yonke
July 12, 2008
In an unusually long and detailed ruling, the Ohio 6th District Court of Appeals yesterday upheld the 2006 conviction of Toledo Catholic priest Gerald Robinson for the 1980 murder of a nun.
The three-judge panel, in a 95-page ruling, meticulously reviewed and rejected a litany of claims made by Robinson's attorneys, including ineffective defense counsel, a lack of DNA evidence, injecting Satanism into the trial as a possible motive for the murder, and the loss of evidence and key witnesses over the years.
Judges Peter Handwork, Mark Pietrykowski, and William Skow said there was "abundant substantial evidence" for the Lucas County Common Pleas Court jury to have reached its guilty verdict in the three-week, nationally televised trial held in April and May, 2006.
Robinson's attorneys said yesterday that they will take their case to the Ohio Supreme Court.
"Obviously the court has spoken and we have to accept that," John Donahue said. "That doesn't mean we have to agree with the court, but we've got to accept it and we've got to move on."
Dean Mandros, chief of the criminal division of the Lucas County prosecutor's office, called the decision "a metaphorical pat on the back" for his department.
Both Mr. Donahue and Mr. Mandros said yesterday's decision was by far the longest from the appeals court that they had seen in their careers.
"I was shocked when I saw it," Mr. Donahue said.
Robinson, 70, was arrested by Lucas County cold case investigators on April 23, 2004, and convicted on May 11, 2006, for the murder of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl.
The 71-year-old nun had been choked nearly to death and then stabbed 31 times in the chest, neck, and face with a saber-shaped letter opener. Her partly naked body was found by another nun on the morning of April 5, 1980 — Holy Saturday — on the floor of the sacristy, next to the chapel, of the former Mercy Hospital in Toledo.
Robinson, who retired in 2004 but is still a priest, was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison and is incarcerated at Hocking Correctional Facility in Nelsonville, Ohio. His first parole hearing is scheduled for March, 2021.
Attorneys for Robinson claimed in their appeal that crucial evidence had been lost, key witnesses had died, and memories had faded between the time of the murder and the priest's arrest 24 years later.
But the appeals court said "a defendant must show how lost witnesses and physical evidence would have proven the defendant's asserted defense," and that "mere speculation will not be found sufficient."
It said its ruling on such issues requires "a delicate judgment based on the circumstances of each case," and concluded that Robinson failed to show how the missing evidence and lost testimony would have exonerated him.
The panel said that after reviewing the evidence and 4,000 pages of trial transcript, "the evidence of the appellant's guilt — including evidence showing that he was the person who committed the murder and that the instrument that he used to commit the murder was his sword-shaped letter opener — was very strong."
It also stated that Robinson's team of lawyers in Common Pleas Court were "skillful, and their strategy sound."
It rejected claims that prosecutors sought to present Satanism as a motive for the murder.
The judges cited trial testimony by the Rev. Jeffrey Grob, a Catholic priest and assistant to the exorcist for the Chicago archdiocese, that the killer must have had extensive knowledge of ritual and symbolism.
The judges said Father Grob did not testify that it was a Satanic murder, but that the nun's killer sought to "mock" and "humiliate" her, the Catholic Church, and God by killing Sister Margaret Ann in front of the Holy Eucharist, stabbing her nine times in the chest in the shape of an inverted cross, and using the victim's blood to "anoint" her forehead in a "bastardized version of the last rites" ritual.
The appeals court said part of its duty was to serve as "a thirteenth juror" in reviewing the case, and concluded that "the state provided ample evidence at trial for the jury to conclude that appellant was the perpetrator of the homicide."
Sgt. Steve Forrester of the Lucas County cold case squad, who arrested Robinson in 2004 and testified during the trial, called the ruling "a slam dunk" for the state.
"The three appeals court judges did a thorough, meticulous review of this case and it sounds to me like they were very satisfied with the way everything was done," Sergeant Forrester said.
Mr. Mandros called it "just another confirmation that Gerald Robinson was guilty."
He said the appeal "claimed a lot of things took place that there was absolutely no support in the record for, because they didn't really take place."
Mr. Mandros said his office put in so many hours on the appeal that "it really can't be quantified," and that it was "satisfying" for the judges to say, in effect, that, "Yeah, you guys are right."
Mr. Donahue said he had no way of contacting Robinson in prison yesterday, but that he notified the priest's brother, Thomas Robinson, of Maumee, of the ruling and his plans to continue the legal fight.
He said Robinson has been "in good spirits" and "has always accepted God's will for him."
"He has quite a following in prison," Mr. Donahue added.
Attorney Richard Kerger, who also represents Robinson, said he believes arguments that the delay impeded his client's defense is something the state supreme court needs to address.
Lee Pahl, of Edgerton, Ohio, a nephew of Sister Margaret Ann, said the ruling "certainly is a relief. Any time you have to relive or go through this again, it's a relief to have it over with. I think they got it right and I'm happy with the court of appeals' decision. I always thought the original court decision was absolutely correct."
The Toledo diocese said yesterday that it had no comment on the appeals court decision.
Contact David Yonke at: email@example.com or 419-724-6154.
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