Judge Judy Hunter delivered a thoughtful, precise and logical ruling exonerating Douglas Prade in the 1997 murder of Margo Prade. Whatever the criticisms from the Summit County prosecutor’s office and others, the judge deserves credit for the care taken in the decision and the considerable guts required to make a tough call.
The prosecutor’s office described the ruling as “a gross misapplication of the law.” It added that “all of the evidence” points to Prade as the killer. The matter certainly seemed settled 15 years ago when a jury found Prade guilty. The former captain in the Akron Police Department received a life sentence. As Hunter reminded, the case turned, in many respects, on the bite mark left on the victim’s arm. The prosecution provided testimony arguing the indentation matched the bite of Prade.
The DNA test at the time excluded Prade, but it wasn’t sophisticated enough to be helpful. The tests today yield more information, and when applied in this case found no trace of Prade, either — at the bite mark or anywhere else. The prosecution argues this DNA evidence “is contaminated and unreliable,” reflecting, in part, material degraded or picked up along the way. Hunter cannot dismiss easily the absence of a link to the defendant.
What the judge then performed effectively and responsibly is an examination of the remaining evidence in view of the new DNA test.
If the bite mark evidence once seemed so decisive, it now has weakened substantially. Hunter cited expert testimony raising new concerns about the reliability of bite mark identification.
The judge reassessed the eyewitness evidence, one man entering the case nine months after the killing, another offering conflicting accounts about the degree of his attention. No question, Prade tapped Margo Prade’s phone calls. Hunter retraced the testimony indicating that Margo Prade feared her husband, his bullying and stalking. Yet the judge concluded: “ … this court’s experience is that friction, turmoil and name-calling are not uncommon during divorce proceedings.”
Hunter recognizes the problems with the Prade alibi, the suspicious tallying of debts against a life insurance payout, the desire of family members, friends and others to see justice for Margo Prade. The judge’s job calls for evaluating the case in view of the new DNA test. She concluded, reasonably, that evidence once seemingly strong in a supporting role frays as it stands more on its own.
What would a jury do in light of no DNA link, “debunked” bite mark testimony, “highly questionable” eyewitness accounts, plus other uncertainties in the evidence? Hunter could have simply ordered another trial. Instead she followed the logic of where the evidence led her.
That may be maddening, puzzling, illogical to those convinced that Douglas Prade is the killer. Hunter had the task of weighing whether the evidence now meets the required legal threshold. An appeals court eventually may disagree. Judge Hunter deserves respect for the way she arrived at a difficult and controversial decision.