Updated Sat, Aug 25, 2012 9:38 am
Updated Sat, Aug 25, 2012 9:38 am
Long-time residents of Southeast Ohio will remember the name Dale Johnston.
It will not be a fond memory, since it's associated with a grisly double-murder.
And it will probably be an incorrect memory because in the end Johnston was cleared of wrong-doing.
The story is the subject of a new book: "Guilty by Popular Demand" by author is Bill Osinski.
Osinski got to know about the Johnston case as a reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal.
"Something was very strange about the story from the beginning," said Osinski.
Osinski was assigned to cover Johnston's trial in Logan.
That was in 1984.
"It was a January day and I got to the courthouse for the trial, you know, on the early side, maybe 8 o'clock and here are these people, lined up outside the courthouse. And I think 'what is going on here?' This case was of such interest, there were so many rumors flying around town about this incestuous step-father who butchered his own step-daughter and her boyfriend and the whole town was so full of this morbid curiosity, I guess is one way to put it, that they were lining up from 6 a.m. that morning. There were very limited spectator seats in the trial," said Osinski.
Johnston was charged with the murder of Annette Johnston, his step-daughter, and her boyfriend, Todd Schultz.
Osinski says it was a case of miscarriage of justice.
"There was no direct evidence, but yet, the three judges voted to convict him of both murders and the people in the courthouse at the time of the verdict, they had this eery cheering, you know, that this man was being sent off to be executed. And I said, 'you know, this is not right" and so after the trial, I investigated the case, wrote a series about the flaws in the prosecution's case and kind of kept the story alive. And then, of course, his appeal was granted and the re-trial ordered, but the local prosecutors didn't have enough evidence to bring him back to trial. He was left under this cloud of guilty for 20 more years until the real killers confessed," said Osinski.
There was a three week trial.
Osinski says most of what was presented was based on fabrications, melodramatic fiction, and forensic fairy tales.
"They convicted Johnston out of their fears and their belief that it had to have been an outsider. Johnston lived outside of town, you know, about 10 miles and he wasn't really one of them," said Osinski. "He didn't really go to their churches or join their clubs, so it was easy to think that this unknown guy from a different part of Ohio could have been the killer. And as opposed to looking at the truth, that it was a couple of guys who lived right there in town."
Osinski says he was shocked by the guilty verdict.
And he describes it as a total collapse of the local criminal justice system.
"When I was doing the interviewing for this book, it was very easy, I would strike up conversations with people I didn't even know in town and the prevailing view, even now, is that Dale Johnston got what he deserved, that he was on death row for five years, but everyone thinks that he had to have been guilty of something or they wouldn't have convicted him. I got this from, it's quoted in the book, from the current prosecuting attorney. "Well, he was certainly guilty of this or that." You know, the man had been sent off to be executed and they are just holding to this belief that somehow they were justified."
The book just recently hit the stands, but Osinski says he started writing it around 1990.
"After Johnston was released, you know, I was convinced that he was innocent, but I started the book and I got an agent to take it around New York. They said 'well, it's a strange story, but we don't know the ending" because at that time, Johnston had tried to sue the state for wrongful imprisonment but lost his case. We didn't know who the killer was and of course, now, with the state accepting guilty pleas, in line with the case, we know. When all of this started to happen in 2008, I started coming back to Ohio to research the case," said Osinski.
Osinski was a newspaper reporter for 36 years.
A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, he now writes books and screenplays, two of which have been optioned for motion picture projects. One such screenplay has to do with the Johnston story. He says he's pitched it in Los Angeles, but no word yet on production possibilities.
"I think it's an amazing story and its got this twist that comes in 25 years later. I think a lot of people need to be aware of this, if not for at least a movie, but to be aware of the way that some of our death penalty cases are being handled," said Osinski.
Bill Osinski, author of "Guilty by Popular Demand" which is published by the Kent State University Press.