The issue of jurisdiction


By Justice Paul E. Pfeifer



Here at the Ohio Supreme Court earlier this year we reviewed a case that dealt with the issue of jurisdiction. Specifically, the question was, which state should prosecute the offender, a man named Donald F. Leyman.

In 1991, Leyman marred a woman who had two children – a girl and a boy – from a previous relationship. In June 1993, the woman and the two children moved from Hamilton, New York, to Medina, Ohio. Leyman soon followed, moving to Ohio in August or September 1993. According to the woman, Leyman remained in Ohio until early 1996, when he moved out of state after the couple separated and later divorced.

After Leyman had moved out of state, the children told their mother – in September 1996 – that Leyman had assaulted them. Leyman was eventually indicted by a grand jury on several counts of rape and gross sexual imposition (“GSI”).

In 1999, Leyman was convicted of rape of his former stepson and GSI upon both children. He was sentenced to 7 to 25 years for rape and 18 months for each count of GSI, with all sentences to be served concurrently.

In due time Leyman appealed his rape conviction, but the trial court’s judgment was affirmed.

Jump ahead now to 2013. That’s when Leyman filed a petition for post-conviction relief and sought a new trial. The petition was dismissed and the request for a new trial was denied.

But Leyman persisted, filing an application with the Ninth District Court of Appeals in 2013 to reopen his direct appeal. That court denied the application for reopening, and we later declined to review his case.

Leyman then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the Fifth District Court of Appeals. The primary function of a writ of habeas corpus is to release someone from unlawful imprisonment. But the Fifth District dismissed Leyman’s petition. After that, he filed an appeal with us.

To begin, we denied Leyman’s request for oral argument because his case didn’t meet any of the criteria we consider: it wasn’t a matter of great public importance, it didn’t involve complex issues of law or fact, it didn’t raise a substantial constitutional issue, and there wasn’t any conflict among the courts of appeals.

Rather, his case involved a straightforward application of interpreting a particular law. We therefore denied oral argument.

To be entitled to a writ of habeas corpus, Leyman had to show that he was being unlawfully restrained of his liberty, and that he is entitled to an “immediate release from prison…”

A writ of habeas corpus is generally “available only when the petitioner’s maximum sentence has expired and he is being held unlawfully.” And, as with other writ actions, “habeas corpus is not available when there is an adequate remedy in the ordinary course of law.”

However, there is a limited exception to the adequate-remedy requirement: “when a court’s judgment is void because it lacked jurisdiction, habeas is still an appropriate remedy despite the availability of appeal.”

With that law in mind, Leyman argued that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to convict him of the rape of his former stepson – the only offense for which he remains in prison. He made that argument because he maintained that the offenses did not occur in Ohio.

In making that “other state” argument, Leyman also relied on a decision by our court from 2004 called State v. Yarbrough. In Yarbrough, we reversed a defendant’s multiple murder conviction based on the Ohio law which, at the time, required that – with regard to homicide – the act or physical conduct that caused death, or the death itself, must have occurred in Ohio for the trial court to have jurisdiction over the prosecution of the homicide.

In Yarbrough, it was undisputed that all the acts resulting in the victims’ deaths occurred in Pennsylvania, not Ohio. Consequently, Ohio courts did not have jurisdiction over the homicides under the law as it was worded at the time.

Leyman argued that both the Ninth and Fifth District Courts of Appeals, and the prison warden – who filed a brief in this case – all made the same mistake in misconstruing Ohio’s venue law. In short, Leyman maintained that the Ohio court did not have jurisdiction, and so he should be granted the writ.

But for two reasons Leyman’s argument lacked merit. First, Yarbrough involved the portion of the venue law that specifically pertains to homicide. Leyman was convicted of rape, not homicide. So neither the law that Leyman cited, nor Yarbrough, applied to his conviction.

Second, the law that does apply to Leyman states that when an offense is committed under the laws of this state, and it appears beyond a reasonable doubt that the offense or any element of the offense took place either in this state or in another jurisdiction, but it cannot reasonably be determined in which it took place, the offense or element is conclusively presumed to have taken place in this state.

That law “is intended to grant Ohio courts ‘the broadest possible jurisdiction over crimes and persons committing crimes in or affecting this state, consistent with constitutional limitations.’”

At trial, Leyman’s former stepson testified that the events at issue occurred when he was “six, seven, eight” years old. The boy, who was born in June 1985, could not remember where he was living when the offenses occurred.

His mother testified that the family, including Leyman, lived in Ohio after August or September 1993. Therefore, because the former stepson’s testimony supported that the offenses occurred during at least part of the time period that the family lived in Ohio, under the law, the offenses, including the rape, are presumed to have taken place in Ohio.

Because Leyman couldn’t demonstrate that the trial court lacked jurisdiction, he cannot obtain a writ of habeas corpus. We concluded – by a seven-to-zero vote – that Leyman is not entitled to a writ of habeas corpus because under the relevant law, the trial court did not lack subject-matter jurisdiction over his case.

By Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

Paul Pfeifer is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.

Paul Pfeifer is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.

comments powered by Disqus