Lawyers Say Trial Ignored Other Suspects

By David Yonke
Toledo Blade
May 21, 2011

Gerald Robinson, found guilty in the 1980 death of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl, appears in Lucas County Common Pleas court for the first time since his 2006 conviction. THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY Enlarge | Photo Reprints

Attorneys representing Gerald Robinson, the Toledo priest convicted in 2006 of murdering a nun 26 years earlier, argued in court Friday that his trial attorneys should have pursued the possibility that Sister Margaret Ann Pahl was the victim of either a notorious serial killer or a different Catholic priest.

Robinson, 73, wearing a jail jumpsuit, was handcuffed and shackled at the wrists and ankles during his first appearance in Lucas County Common Pleas Court since May 11, 2006, when a jury found him guilty of murder. While he did not testify or address the court Friday he at times conferred with his attorneys during the almost four-hour hearing.

Judge Gene Zmuda ordered the hearing to address a few specific issues among the myriad arguments raised in Robinson’s amended petition for post-conviction relief, which claims that the priest’s constitutional rights were violated.

The main arguments of his attorneys, Rick Kerger and Jeffrey Zilba, were that the state was negligent in misfiling some 1980 police reports and that the priest’s trial attorneys provided ineffective counsel in not pursuing important defense strategies.

The missing reports — up to 170 pages — were found in late 2009 after they had been filed in the wrong section of police records when transferred to microfiche about 16 years ago.

Mr. Kerger and Mr. Zilba noted during questioning of Alan Konop and John Thebes, two of Robinson’s trial attorneys, that the missing documents had statements from six witnesses saying they saw a black male in his 20s, of medium complexion and medium build, at the former Mercy Hospital on Holy Saturday morning, 1980 — the date and site of the sister’s death.

Mr. Konop and Mr. Thebes said they were aware of only two witnesses who said they saw a black male in the halls on the morning of the crime.

Both Mr. Konop and Mr. Thebes testified that it might have aided the priest’s defense had they known that eight witnesses, not just two, told police about an unidentified black man in the corridors.

Karen Raszka, who was a nursing student working at the hospital the morning of the murder, testified that she contacted Robinson’s trial attorneys to tell them she saw the chapel doors closed on the morning of the murder, and that it was the only time she had seen those doors shut. She testified the attorneys told her they didn’t call her as a witness because “they didn’t think he would be convicted and would not need me.”

Mr. Thebes testified Friday that the defense team didn’t call Ms. Raszka because they thought her testimony was “a mixed bag” that could have harmed the priest’s case.

Mr. Kerger and Mr. Zilba also challenged Mr. Konop and Mr. Thebes on why they did not try to argue that either confessed serial killer Coral Eugene Watts or the late Toledo priest Jerome Swiatecki could have been the perpetrator.

Watts, who generally fit the description that the eight witnesses gave Toledo police, confessed to 12 killings in Texas and Ohio and may have been responsible for killing more than 80 women. He was in Detroit and Ann Arbor around the time that Sister Margaret Ann was choked nearly to death in the hospital sacristy then stabbed 31 times. She was found with her habit pulled up and her undergarments pulled down.

Watts, who died of cancer in a Michigan prison in 2007 at age 53, had strangled many of his female victims and stabbed them repeatedly, then left them with their blouses pulled up, Mr. Zilba said.

Mr. Thebes said he believed Watts had been either “incarcerated or incapacitated” when Sister Margaret Ann was murdered, but Mr. Kerger said an Ann Arbor detective told Toledo investigators at the time that Watts might have been in Toledo on the day of the nun’s murder.

John Weglian, chief of the special units division of the Lucas County Prosecutor’s Office, said the state provided Robinson’s trial attorneys with more than 30 pages of documents related to Watts, and that all of his victims were young women. Sister Margaret Ann was 71 when she was killed.

Mr. Weglian cited expert witnesses who testified during the trial that an unusual saber-shaped letter opener found in Robinson’s apartment at Mercy Hospital was the murder weapon, and that three witnesses testified during the trial that they saw the priest near the chapel on the morning of the murder — contradicting Robinson’s statements to police that he did not leave his room.

He said the evidence at the trial was “overwhelming” that the letter opener was the murder weapon and that it was in the exclusive possession of the priest.

“The defense counsel had a very hard road to hoe in terms of challenging that weapon as the murder weapon, given the expert testimony that was provided in the trial,” Mr. Weglian said.

Now Robinson’s attorneys are trying to “totally ignore the evidence” and pursue a different strategy, pursuing the possibility of Watts and Father Swiatecki as suspects.

“They would like to try this case differently, but only because the case has been tried once already,” Mr. Weglian said.

Not brought up in court Friday was the fact that the Ohio Innocence Project, which joined Robinson’s defense team in 2009, tested Watts’ DNA and found that it did not match DNA found on Sister Margaret Ann’s fingernails.

Mr. Kerger and Mr. Zilba called to the stand Father Swiatecki’s former housekeeper, Sister Dorothy Marie Bala- buch, who wore her Sylvania Franciscan nun’s habit in court.

The 78-year-old nun signed an affidavit in 2007 that said Father Swiatecki, who died in 1996 at age 82, had “a very bad temper” and that he was a wood carver with “a large collection of knives.”

On the witness stand Friday, however, the nun said she never saw Father Swiatecki’s knife collection and that the priest had a temper, but she wouldn’t describe it as “very bad.”

Under questioning, she said John Donahue, a Perrysburg attorney who had represented Robinson in the appeals process until the attorney’s death in April, had interviewed her and typed up the affidavit, which she then signed.

She said she couldn’t remember much of her sworn statement from four years ago.

“I can’t even remember what I did yesterday,” she said.

“But you wouldn’t have made that up?” Mr. Weglian asked.

After a pause, Sister Dorothy Marie replied, “I guess not.”

Mr. Weglian later asked the nun if she believed Robinson was innocent.

Sister Dorothy Marie paused 15 seconds before replying, “I would say yes.”

After testifying, the nun blew a kiss to Robinson and reached over to shake his hand as she left the courtroom.

Steve Forrester, a former member of Lucas County’s cold-case squad, was questioned about the missing documents and his knowledge of Watts, and Thomas Staff, an investigator for the county, testified that a Houston detective told him in 1981 that Watts had been cooperative with authorities after his arrest and had told them he never killed anyone in Toledo.

The Ohio 6th District Court of Appeals and the Ohio Supreme Court rejected Robinson’s appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear his case.

The amended petition for post-conviction relief is a collateral legal effort based on assertions that the priest’s constitutional rights were violated.

Judge Zmuda ordered attorneys to file motions summing up their case by June 17.

Robinson, who is barred from ministry but has not been laicized by the Vatican, is serving a 15 years to life sentence at Hocking Correctional Center in southern Ohio.

Contact David Yonke at: or 419-724-6154.


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