Summit County prosecutors hammered away Thursday at the foundation of a judge’s court order declaring Douglas Prade’s innocence in the 1997 slaying of his ex-wife, Dr. Margo Prade.
The new DNA tests upon which that ruling was based, according to the government’s argument in Akron’s 9th District Court of Appeals, were not reliable.
Summit Assistant Prosecutor Richard Kasay told the panel that if the state had believed those tests were reliable, “I wouldn’t be here today.”
Both sides have never disputed that the killer bit Dr. Prade during a violent struggle moments before she was shot to death inside her van in her office parking lot on Wooster Avenue.
In a 26-page written decision following four days of evidentiary hearings in January, Common Pleas Judge Judy Hunter ruled that new DNA tests excluded Douglas Prade as the contributor to a central piece of forensic evidence: a bite-mark impression found on a small section of fabric from Dr. Prade’s lab coat.
Because the DNA sample excluded Douglas Prade, Hunter concluded it was clear and convincing evidence he was “actually innocent of [the] aggravated murder.”
Kasay disputed Hunter’s findings on what is known under the law as “actual innocence.”
The lab coat fabric that was tested with the latest technology, Kasay said, contained at least two and as many as five DNA profiles. None was Douglas Prade’s.
But Kasay said those findings show a possibility the bite mark evidence was “contaminated,” possibly as far back as when it was handled in court during Prade’s 1998 jury trial.
Presiding 9th District Judge Eve Belfance said the appeal would be taken under advisement and a decision will come later.
The state is seeking to overturn Hunter’s decision and return the former Akron police captain, now 67, to prison.
Prade, dressed in a light gray summer suit, attended Thursday’s hearing with his sister, Yvonne Prade of Akron, and three retired Akron police officers who have stood by him, maintaining his innocence, since the outset of the case. He did not address the court during the hearing and declined to comment when he left the downtown Ocasek Building with an attorney from the Ohio Innocence Project.
Following Hunter’s ruling, Prade was freed from prison Jan. 29, after serving nearly 15 years of a life sentence for the crime. The Ohio Innocence Project helped present his case to Hunter.
Prade’s defense attorney at the appeals hearing, David Alden of the Cleveland firm Jones Day, began his case by pointing to 1998 trial testimony from an FBI agent prosecutors had called.
The agent was questioned, Alden said, about where the killer’s DNA most likely would be found.
“He said: ‘The lab coat bite mark,’ and that’s why they excised it right after the crime,” Alden explained. “And that’s why they sent it to the FBI.”
He said that compared to today’s standards, DNA tests performed on the fabric in 1998 are “insensitive.” At that time, all that was found in the blood-soaked fabric was Dr. Prade’s DNA, Alden said.
When scientists performed the new tests on a preserved 2-inch sample of that fabric, “they found male DNA. There’s no question that they found male DNA,” Alden said, “but that male DNA was not Doug Prade’s DNA.”
Furthermore, Alden stressed, there was no dispute by all four scientific experts, two representing each side, who testified in the October evidentiary hearings in Hunter’s court.
“Not a single expert said this could be Doug Prade’s DNA. That is absolutely clear. There was no dispute [on the point] that this is not Doug Prade’s DNA,” Alden told the appellate judges.
Minutes after Thursday’s hearing, Summit Assistant Prosecutor Brad Gessner, head of the agency’s criminal division, held a session of his own in his office. He produced a small section of cardboard, with three small holes cut out in the center, as an example of the lab coat fabric that was the subject of the latest DNA tests.
When the case went to trial in 1998, Gessner said, the jury saw the actual section of lab coat fabric, was told it did not contain Douglas Prade’s DNA, but still found him guilty based on other circumstantial evidence.
One of the state’s main arguments against Hunter’s January decision, Gessner said, was that she needed to “look to the totality, all of the evidence presented to that jury, not just this little piece that was contaminated.”
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or firstname.lastname@example.org.