Prisoners' Rights on the Docket

Rhonda Head v. Ohio Parole Board

Read our March 30, 2018 complaint in this case. 

Status:
Active
Case Dates:
Friday, 30 March, 2018 - ongoing
Facts:

The Ohio Parole Board (“OPB”) is a 12-member panel, appointed by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, with a statutory duty to conduct release consideration for all parole-eligible inmates. Although Ohio Administrative Code § 5120:1-1-07 sets out a list of mandatory factors for OPB to weigh in its decisions, OPB’s discretion in considering those factors is extremely broad. OPB is not required to list any specific evidence or factors that led to its determination to grant or deny release to any applicant.

Federal courts reviewing the Ohio parole system have held that applicants have no recognized “liberty interest” to support a federal constitutional challenge to OPB’s policies in federal court. Ohio state courts, meanwhile, have placed some limitation on OPB’s discretion, holding that OPB is required to afford “meaningful consideration” to each inmate’s application.

Plaintiff Rhonda Head alleges that as a matter of unwritten policy, OPB: (1) denies all first- parole applications from inmates convicted of a violent offense, regardless of individual circumstances; (2) where multiple defendants were convicted in connection with the same offense, denies parole to the first individual co-defendant who appears before OPB, in order to preserve him or her as a potential informant against the others; and (3) frequently fails to consider material information about an applicant’s conduct while incarcerated, including programs participated in, and other rehabilitation efforts.

Legal Theory:

OPB’s unwritten policies violate Ohio law which requires OPB to afford “meaningful consideration” to each inmate’s parole application.

Status:

On March 30, 2018 the Ohio Justice and Policy Center and the law firm Thompson Hine filed a complaint against OPB in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas challenging these policies. The plaintiff, Rhonda Head, was sentenced to 15 years to life on charges of murder and kidnapping. Though Ms. Head presented a strong case for parole on her first application in 2016—including two job offers and a stable residence waiting for her, numerous recommendation letters, a strong record of completion and even founding numerous rehabilitative programs while in prison, and a positive evaluation by a psychologist—her application was denied. The lawsuit seeks a declaration from the court that OPB’s unwritten policies violate its obligation to provide “meaningful consideration” to applicants. Courts cannot order OPB to release inmates, but can find that OPB’s decision was based on impermissible considerations and order reconsideration.

On May 11 Defendant filed a Motion to Dismiss; on June 8 Plaintiff filed a Memorandum in Opposition; and on June 20 Defendant filed its Reply. We await a ruling on the motion.

On August 17 Plaintiff filed her Initial Joint Disclosure of Witnesses and First Requests for Production of Documents. On August 21 Defendant filed a Motion to Stay Discovery pending a ruling on its Motion to Dismiss. On September 4 Plaintiff filed her Memorandum in Opposition.

On October 30, 2018, attorneys for the ACLU of Ohio entered the case as co-counsel for the Plaintiff.

On December 11 the judge denied the motion to stay discovery. On December 18 we filed a joint motion and proposed order for a continuance to extend all remaining deadlines by 4 months.

On January 4, 2019, the Court issued the update calendar, with trial scheduled for August. Parties proceeded with discovery and Defendant responded to our written discovery requests in February, but refused to produce documents relating to OPB’s deliberation process. They claim this information is privileged, while we disagree.

At her deposition in this case, Ohio Parole Board Chairwoman Trayce Thalheimer stated on the record that she believed that the Board may not have considered certain relevant information in Ms. Head’s case, and that if Ms. Head were to seek a reconsideration and new hearing, the Board would entertain her request. We formally requested reconsideration by letter on June 11, 2019. That request was granted on June 14.

A parole suitability hearing occurred on August 16, 2019 and the Board voted in favor of release. In the meantime, we agreed with Defendant to stay all further proceedings and deadlines in the lawsuit until January 31, 2020.

On November 21, Ms. Head went before a full board hearing. In a 9-1 decision, the parole board voted in favor of release under strict supervision. Ohio law requires at least 60 days between a decision for parole and the date of release. Rhonda Head was released on January 28, 2020.

Under Ohio’s newly enacted Sierah’s Law, she is required to register for Ohio’s Violent Offender Database (“VOD”), a registry maintained by law enforcement for post-release tracking of any person convicted of certain enumerated offenses. On December 19, 2019, as permitted by the statute, we filed a motion with the Lake County Court of Common Pleas (where Ms. Head’s original trial occurred) requesting an exemption from the registry requirement. The county prosecutor’s office filed opposition on January 9, 2020, and we filed a reply on January 14. Ms. Head is exempted from the registry requirement until the court rules on our motion.