COLUMBUS: An attorney for former Akron Police Capt. Douglas Prade asked the Ohio Supreme Court Wednesday, in a case singled out for its importance by the chief justice, for new state-funded DNA tests that could conclusively prove Prade's innocence in the fatal 1997 shooting of his ex-wife.
In one of the city's most notorious murders, Margo Prade, 41, an Akron physician with a thriving family practice, was found by her medical assistant slumped behind the wheel of her van in her office parking lot on Wooster Avenue at 10:25 on the morning before Thanksgiving.
She had been shot, according to the autopsy findings, six times.
Evidence at Prade's trial showed there was a struggle inside the van in the moments before the shooting, and that the killer left a bite mark on Margo Prade's left inner arm.
David Booth Alden, a leading trial lawyer for the heavyweight Cleveland firm Jones Day, quickly got to the point in explaining the defense's position on the need for new tests.
Vividly describing the police investigation's theory about what took place inside the doctor's van, Alden told the justices without being interrupted: ''The murderer sat across from her in the passenger seat, and she attempted to defend herself.
''She shoved her arm in the murderer's mouth so hard,'' Alden said, ''that he bit her. He bit her through two layers of clothing — her lab coat on the outside and her blouse on the inside. He bit her so hard, that he left a bite mark on her skin.''
The problem was, Alden explained, that DNA testing technology at the time of the murder failed to identify the killer, because profuse bleeding on the doctor's lab coat had overwhelmed any traces of DNA embedded in the bite mark by the perpetrator — male or female.
''The new technologies,'' Alden argued, ''put to rest that problem. The new technologies can detect a small amount of male DNA in vast amounts of female DNA.''
Douglas Prade, after a lengthy
Summit County jury trial in September 1998, was convicted of all charges in his indictment. He was sentenced to life in prison, without any chance of parole for 26 years, for aggravated murder, six counts of wiretapping and one count of possession of criminal tools.
Assistant Summit County Prosecutor Richard S. Kasay presented the state's opposition to the new tests, but was repeatedly interrupted by questions from most of the seven justices.
Kasay attempted to explain that, because the 1998 tests were unable to conclusively identify any DNA from Douglas Prade, or anyone else other than the victim, new tests possibly excluding Prade, once again, would not be sufficient to reverse his conviction.
Prade's conviction was based, according to the state's long-held position, largely on the strength of testimony from two eyewitnesses placing him at the murder scene.
The back side of a bank receipt issued before the murder, in which Prade had written down his debts, subtracting the sum from his wife's hefty life insurance policy, was the second strongest prong of the state's case.
Prade's previous appeals for new DNA tests were denied on the basis of similar reasoning by his Summit County trial court and Akron's 9th District Court of Appeals.
Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, seated immediately to the right of Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer, interrupted Kasay's arguments, which followed Alden's 20-minute opening, only seconds after Kasay began.
''My question is: If there's new technology, what's the harm in allowing this test to be done?'' Pfeifer asked.
Saliva an issue
Kasay did not have an immediate response. But he did urge the justices to focus on one word.
''That word is saliva,'' Kasay said.
The state's theory is that the newest testing methods are not likely to identify saliva in a bite mark as opposed to other DNA samples that might be present on the lab coat ''over, around or near the bite mark,'' Kasay said.
The lab coat, according to the state, could contain the DNA samples of any number of people because it had not been recently washed before the murder.
''But what if it can? What if the tests can find saliva residue and get a DNA profile from that? What is the harm in finding that out?'' Pfeifer asked.
Moyer himself said this type of questioning in the Prade case was important for the high court to consider because the court is likely to receive many other wrongful conviction appeals based on similar claims and demands for new testing from other defendants.
Justice Maureen O'Connor, who was the Summit County prosecutor at the time of the murder, recused herself from the case.
Judge Patricia A. Delaney, who sits on the Fifth District Court of Appeals in Canton, was appointed by Moyer to take O'Connor's place.
Relatives of victim
Representing Dr. Prade in the court's ornate chamber, one of her sisters, Veronica Sadler of Akron, was present with her nephew, Anthony Fowler, and his wife, Tammy Fowler, also of Akron. They were accompanied by Claudia Sengos, a case worker from Summit County Victim Services.
After the conclusion of the arguments, Sadler said that, even in the face of the DNA claims, she felt Douglas Prade was guilty. And she saw evidence of that with her own eyes, she said, at the Prades' former home on Mull Avenue hours after the murder.
Douglas Prade was there that night, Sadler said, with a scratch on the right side of his chin. ''Douglas never wore a beard,'' she said, ''and Douglas began growing a beard after he killed Margo. Anyone would know that this man never wore a beard until my sister scratched him.''
Sadler said her mother also saw the scratch on the chin as soon as Prade walked into the house that night.
Representing the former police commander were two of his sisters, Yvonne and Patricia Prade of Akron, and two of Douglas Prade's former colleagues from the Akron Police Department, retired sergeants Dennis Johnson Jr. and William Ellison.
''He didn't do it. That's why we're here,'' Johnson said. ''From the evidence, I truly believe it was done by somebody else.''
Johnson said the prosecution virtually ignored what he termed important evidence from the security cameras at an auto dealer adjacent to the murder scene.
A shadowy image of an unidentified person outside the passenger door of the doctor's minivan was shorter than the top of the van's roof, Johnson said.
Scientific analysis of the image later determined that the person was between 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-9.
Douglas Prade stands 6-foot-3, Johnson said.
Officers grow beards
He also called the claims about Prade growing a beard for the first time after the murder ''bull crap.''
Johnson said Douglas Prade was on paid leave after the murder. And many officers who were off duty, or on vacation, grew beards to escape the daily grind of being clean-shaven in uniform, he said.
He also said that one of the two witnesses who testified about seeing Prade at the scene of the murder was legally blind.
''He's now passed away, but he was legally blind. He couldn't recognize his daughter from three feet away, and they wouldn't let that come out at trial,'' Johnson said.
Johnson said that same witness also tried to take legal action against himself and Douglas Prade over previous arrests.
''There were so many things that pointed away from Douglas,'' he said, ''that it floored me when they found him guilty.''
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or firstname.lastname@example.org.