Randy Resh and Bob Gondor have been free men since 2007, when they were vindicated at a new murder trial in Portage County.
They lost nearly 17 years of their lives in prison waiting for that day.
Fear of the unknown still remains, they said last week, as they await the next chapter to play out in their case.
It will begin to unfold Monday morning in the Portage County Courthouse.
Both men, now 50, are expected to take the witness stand during a civil trial that could lead to a state-recognized finding of innocence in the 1988 strangulation slaying of a Randolph Township woman, Connie Nardi, 31.
Resh and Gondor must win in this civil phase of the case, or the final legal hurdle — arguments in the Ohio Court of Claims to determine monetary damages for wrongful conviction — won’t be cleared.
Retired Summit County Common Pleas Judge Marvin Shapiro will hear their case. He handled most of the proceedings six years ago in another case that ultimately sent the real killer to prison in the Clarence Elkins saga.
Elkins had served seven years for a crime that DNA evidence finally proved he did not commit.
The legal burden of proof for such a judgment of innocence for Resh and Gondor is by a simple preponderance of the evidence in Shapiro’s estimation alone. There will be no jury.
Resh and Gondor will appear in the same county justice system that sent them to prison nearly a quarter of a century ago. Although their original convictions were reversed in the 2007 retrial — so ordered by the Ohio Supreme Court — they now must win in a third trial to prove what is known as “actual innocence.”
The men and their attorneys, Steven L. Bradley, Gregory Robey and Mark Marein, the former head of the criminal division in the Geauga County Prosecutor’s Office, declined to comment. They said it would be inappropriate before the trial takes place.
Portage County Prosecutor Victor V. Vigluicci, who was not in office when Resh and Gondor were convicted in 1990, released an email statement to the Beacon Journal regarding his position on the civil trial.
The statement began with a reference to the 2007 criminal retrial: “The fact that a jury of 12 was not unanimously convinced of a defendant’s guilt does not mean that the defendant did not commit the crime. A lack of proof beyond a reasonable doubt and actual innocence are two very separate issues,” Vigluicci wrote.
The statement went on to say that Resh and Gondor face the burden this time, under civil law, of proving they did not commit the crime. Vigluicci said it is his duty, “on behalf of the state, in holding the defendants to that burden in the upcoming civil trial.”
Resh and Gondor have been friends since the fourth grade at Mantua Center Elementary.
Gondor, a master carpenter, runs a home remodeling business in Chardon, Blackbrook Builders. He lives on sprawling acreage in an old home his deceased father previously owned.
Resh works full time as a die maker at a printing firm in Solon. He lives in Garfield Heights and, since his release, has reunited with his ex-wife, Traci Grimm.
They had the first major breakthrough in the criminal case in June 2002, after years of post-conviction appeals, when visiting Judge Charles J. Bannon ordered a new trial following an eight-day evidentiary hearing. Bannon found no scientific evidence linking Resh and Gondor to the Nardi murder and vacated their original convictions as “not worthy of confidence.”
A single droplet of blood allegedly uncovered in the bed liner of Gondor’s pickup by a state crime lab investigator — proving the truck was used to dispose of the body, prosecutors claimed — was completely discredited. Based on a new analysis of the small stain by a renown forensic crime lab in California, the Serological Research Institute, Bannon ruled that it actually was a drop of perspiration.
His order, however, was put on hold for four years in an appeal the Portage County Prosecutor’s Office filed.
On the day after Christmas in 2006, the Ohio Supreme Court ultimately upheld Bannon’s findings in a unanimous ruling that cleared the way for the criminal retrial.
Resh, the principal defendant, went first. After three weeks of testimony, he was found not guilty, on April 18, 2007, of all charges in connection with the murder. Nine days later, as Gondor was preparing for trial, Vigluicci declined to prosecute and all charges against him were dismissed.
It has taken another seven years to get to this stage of the proceedings.
Bradley, Marein and Robey, who were involved in the work that led to acquittal in Resh’s retrial, attempted to have the civil trial heard in Cuyahoga County, where the case had less notoriety.
More heated court battles followed, until jurisdiction finally was transferred to Portage County in February 2008.
Troy Joseph Busta, 47, of Hiram, is the only man still in prison over the crime. He was Portage County’s star witness in the original trials of Resh and Gondor and the 2007 Resh retrial.
As the first man arrested and indicted on a charge of aggravated murder, Busta initially faced the death penalty. Under terms of a plea deal to a lesser charge of murder, prosecutors took the death penalty off the table in exchange for his cooperation in all future proceedings. They then presented his eyewitness testimony as the crux of their case in the original trials.
Columbus attorney James D. Owen, who successfully represented Resh and Gondor in the early phase of their post-conviction appeals, told Ohio Supreme Court justices in January 2006 that Busta’s plea deal was like “a deal with the devil.”
Busta has been brought to the Portage County Jail from the state prison system, court records show, and is expected to be the prosecution’s star witness again in this civil trial.
Refusing to answer
Twice since last May, Bradley and Marein have attempted to question Busta in sworn depositions. He refused to answer any questions regarding physical evidence or any other discovery issue.
The Beacon Journal also has made several written requests to state prison officials for an interview with Busta. He declined all requests.
Ohio Parole Board officials are the only authorities to shed any light on Busta’s conduct since he was sent to prison in April 1989.
After he had served 20 years, parole board members noted in their 2009 case review that he strangled and sexually assaulted the victim, and “has not taken full responsibility for his role in this heinous crime.”
The decision went on to say that granting Busta’s release at that time “would not further the interest of justice or promote the safety and security of society.”
Last July, his release was denied a second time. A one-page report stated that Busta “lacks insight on his role [in] the crime” and still appears to “minimize his actions.”
State prison records show that his third parole evaluation is scheduled for next April.
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or at email@example.com.