Derek Lichtenwalter is incarcerated at Belmont Correctional Institution which, like all Ohio prisons, is experiencing a massive and uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreak. He is also a person living with HIV, and because of his immunocompromised status, is at serious risk if he contracts the virus. He filed a petition for habeas corpus pro se, seeking to be released early on the basis that continued detention violates his constitutional rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. This was the first time such a petition was before the Ohio Supreme Court (which has original jurisdiction over extraordinary writs) during the pandemic. We filed an amicus brief in support of his petition.

Legal Theory

Unnecessary exposure of state prisoners, especially those with underlying health problems, to COVID-19 is cruel and unusual punishment under the Ohio and U.S. constitutions. The Court may examine a habeas petition in extraordinary circumstances regardless of whether it meets the statutory filing requirements.

Status Update

Relator Derek Lichtenwalter filed his pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus or in the alternative, mandamus in the Supreme Court of Ohio on March 19, 2020. The Court ordered an expedited briefing schedule sua sponte. On March 30, Jacqueline Greene and Sarah Gelsomino from Friedman & Gilbert filed appearances on his behalf, and Respondents the State of Ohio moved to dismiss.

On April 6, Relator filed his opposition to the motion to dismiss and we filed an amicus brief in support of his opposition.

On April 16, the Court dismissed the petition for failure to state a claim. The ground for dismissal was because Mr. Lichtenwalter did not seek an appropriate remedy, and did not bar re-filing. In a concurring opinion, Justice Donnelley called on all Ohio state actors to take drastic steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in prison and its impact on Ohio prisoners and communities.

Date filed

April 6, 2020