An appeals court has ordered a new trial for Javon Thomas, who was sentenced to 36 years in prison for the shooting deaths of two men in Ravenna in January 2017.
Thomas, 28, of Akron argued in an appeal to the Ohio Eleventh District Court of Appeals that he was given an unfair trial because the jury was instructed in the wrong kind of self-defense doctrine.
Under Ohio law, anyone claiming self-defense has a “duty to retreat,” or to attempt to leave the situation, before using force as a form of defense. The jury was instructed on this "duty to retreat" law, said Neil P. Agarwal, the attorney who prepared the appeal. Agarwal did not argue at the trial and will not argue the case at a new trial.
But in his appeal, Thomas argued that the jury should have been instructed to consider “castle doctrine,” which under Ohio law means that if someone lives in the home where they are being attacked, they do not have a duty to retreat first before using force as self-defense.
Thomas was convicted in November 2017 in Portage County Common Pleas Court of two counts of murder and two counts of felonious assault.
According to the appeal and testimony at the trial, Thomas and the two victims who died, Austin Tiller, 20, of Cuyahoga Falls and Brian Brack, 24, of Canton, were at the home of Sadie Ochsenbine of Ravenna. Thomas and Ochsenbine said they had an “on-again, off-again” relationship, and that Thomas would live at her apartment for periods of time.
At some point in the night, Thomas made a joke to Destany Dixon, another person at the scene, about her not drinking, according to the appeal. Dixon later left and returned with Brack, her boyfriend. Shortly after arriving, Brack made a joke about everyone being quiet, and Ochsenbine told him there was no reason for him to be there, as he didn’t know anyone else but Dixon.
Brack then “drew his weapon [from his jacket pocket] and said that no one was going to disrespect his girlfriend,” according to the appeal. In the crossfire, three of Thomas’ six shots went through Tiller’s back, fatally wounding him. One found Brack’s chest, and he died in the hallway outside the apartment. One shot hit Dixon in the leg. Tiller was unarmed.
Because several people there that night testified Brack drew his weapon first and Thomas occasionally lived in the apartment and was a guest of Ochsenbine’s, the appeal argued the jury in Thomas’ case should have been instructed under the “castle doctrine,” and not under the usual standard of self-defense.
The appeals court agreed, and ordered Thomas be granted a new trial.
The appeals court also said text messages between Dixon and Brack before Brack arrived at the party should have been included in evidence. They were excluded as the court believed they could not be authenticated.
Thomas is currently being held in the Lake Erie Correctional Institute in Ashtabula County. A new trial date has not been set.
The Portage County Prosecutor’s Office did not comment for this story.
Contact reporter Eileen McClory at 330-298-1128, firstname.lastname@example.org or @Eileen_McClory.