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.
OPB’s unwritten policies violate Ohio law which requires OPB to afford “meaningful consideration” to each inmate’s parole application.
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.
We are also representing Ms. Head in administrative proceedings before the OBP that have been ongoing during the pendency of this litigation.
On May 11, 2018 Defendant filed a Motion to Dismiss the lawsuit; on June 8 Plaintiff filed a Memorandum in Opposition; and on June 20 Defendant filed its Reply.
On August 17, 2018, 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, 2018, 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 updated calendar. Trial was scheduled for August 5, 2019. On February 5, OPB responded to Plaintiff’s written discovery requests, but refused to produce documents or respond to interrogatories relating to its deliberation process, citing certain privileges that we contend are inapplicable.
At her deposition, OPB Chairwoman Trayce Thalheimer testified 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 dated June 11, 2019 which the Board granted on June 14. A parole suitability hearing occurred on August 16, 2019 and the Board voted in favor of release. A full board hearing then occurred on November 21, 2019. This hearing, under Parole Board procedures, is held when requested by petition by the victim’s family, victim’s representatives, trial prosecutor, or other official or involved party. Ms. Head’s legal counsel and other advocates made statements to the board in favor of release. The prosecutor and a victim advocate representing the victim’s family read statements opposed to release.
After a short deliberation the Board voted 9-1 in favor of release, and on January 28 Ms. Head was released on parole. 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 that allows some types of public access. 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. The hearing for that motion was originally set for April 27 but was postponed at our request due to the pandemic, so that it could be held in person. The hearing was held on August 17 in the Lake County Court of Common Pleas and on October 27 she was granted relief from registering with the VOD.
We agreed with Defendant to stay all further proceedings and deadlines in our principal lawsuit pending in Franklin County as long as parole reconsideration is ongoing, and the Court accordingly entered a stay. The parties jointly requested, and the court agreed to extend the stay to March 2, 2020. On March 20 we entered a voluntary dismissal, concluding the case in chief.