Please E-mail suggested additions, comments and/or corrections to Kent@MoreLaw.Com.
Help support the publication of case reports on MoreLaw
STATE OF OHIO v. APRIL SCARTON
Case Number: 108474
Judge: EILEEN A. GALLAGHER
Court: COURT OF APPEALS OF OHIO
EIGHTH APPELLATE DISTRICT
COUNTY OF CUYAHOGA
Plaintiff's Attorney: Michael C. O’Malley, Cuyahoga County Prosecuting
Attorney, and Frank Romeo Zeleznikar, Assistant
Just Call 855-853-4800 for Free Help Finding a Lawyer Help You.
Cleveland, Ohio - Criminal defense attorney represented April Scarton with arguing that she was really guilty of vehicular homicide and should have been sentenced accordingly.
Melissa Lang’s death occurred during a violent altercation that arose
from two distinct incidents among friends. Anthony and April Scarton were married
to each other. Melissa Lang and Eric Clary were engaged. Clary and Anthony had
been friends for 20 years.
On Friday, September 21, 2018, April babysat Lang and Clary’s young
son for about three hours. April noted that the boy did not engage well, was not
walking, crawling, or talking and was very thin. After she returned the child to Lang
and Clary, April called 696-Kids and reported the matter to the Cuyahoga County
Division of Children and Family Services. Subsequently, April and Lang exchanged
heated, vulgar and threatening text messages. April eventually “blocked” Lang.
1 A jury convicted her of two counts of murder and two counts of felonious assault.
All four counts merged as allied offenses, and the prosecution elected to proceed on count
one, Murder under R.C. 2903.02(A). The trial court sentenced her to 15 years to life.
Because of the Supreme Court of Ohio’s April 14, 2020 tolling order, this court
rules that Scarton timely filed her application.
During that same weekend Anthony, with the family dog, visited
Clary. During that visit, the dog bit Clary and Clary kicked the dog, allegedly injuring
it. The men came close to fighting, and the argument continued over the weekend.
On Monday, September 24, 2020, April, Anthony and a friend drove
to Lang’s house, with the intention of determining what Clary would do to
compensate Clary for injuring the dog. Anthony and the friend went to the house,
hitting on the front door and windows demanding Clary come outside. Clary exited
the house through the side-door swinging an aluminum baseball bat and chased the
two men back to their car. At the same time, Lang exited the home and confronted
April who was in the car. Lang grabbed April’s hair and punched her several times
through the open driver-side window.
Anthony and the friend got back in the car and Clary broke the two
rear lights as well as the back window of the car. Lang started to run for the house,
but April drove the car onto the lawn and ran her over. Four witnesses testified that
the vehicle targeted Lang. She was running away for safety and April turned the car
towards her and ran over her.
April testified that after several punches, she was seeing stars and did
not recall much of what happened and did not remember striking Lang. She testified
that she remembered Anthony helping her steer the car down the street. After
consulting with their attorney, they drove to a police station to report the damage to
their car. Based on reports from the crime scene, the police arrested April, Anthony
and their friend.
During opening statement, defense counsel proposed that Lang’s
death was the result of a tragic accident. Trial counsel sought jury instructions for
vehicular homicide and accident, but the trial judge declined that request. The state
sought instructions for the lesser included offenses of voluntary manslaughter and
aggravated assault, but the judge, upon defense counsel’s objection, declined to
provide those instructions as well.
Scarton’s appellate attorney argued the following: (1) The verdict was
not supported by sufficient evidence. (2) The verdict was against the manifest
weight of the evidence. (3) Defense counsel was ineffective for eliciting
incriminating hearsay evidence from Sgt. Jackson as well as the officer the Scartons
talked to when they went to the police station; he testified that the officers on the
scene indicated that the Scartons were the people who killed Lang. (4) Defense
counsel was ineffective for failing to object to Officer Garcia’s testimony that April
made incriminating statements during an argument with another cellmate. (5) The
trial court erred by denying the state’s request for jury instructions on voluntary
manslaughter and aggravated assault. (6) Defense counsel was ineffective for
objecting to the state’s request for voluntary manslaughter and aggravated assault
instructions. (7) The trial court erred by denying defense counsel’s request for a jury
instruction on accident. (8) The trial court erred by excluding relevant evidence of
Clary’s drug use and Lang’s text messages to other people during that weekend.
Scarton now argues that her appellate counsel was ineffective.
Discussion of Law
In order to establish a claim of ineffective assistance of appellate
counsel, the applicant must demonstrate that counsel’s performance was deficient
and that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense. Strickland v.
Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984); State v. Bradley,
42 Ohio St.3d 136, 538 N.E.2d 373 (1989); and State v. Reed, 74 Ohio St.3d 534,
1996-Ohio-21, 660 N.E.2d 456.
In Strickland, the United States Supreme Court ruled that judicial
scrutiny of an attorney’s work must be highly deferential. The court noted that it is
all too tempting for a defendant to second-guess his lawyer after conviction and that
it would be all too easy for a court, examining an unsuccessful defense in hindsight,
to conclude that a particular act or omission was deficient. Therefore, “a court must
indulge a strong presumption that counsel’s conduct falls within the wide range of
reasonable professional assistance; that is, the defendant must overcome the
presumption that, under the circumstances, the challenged action ‘might be
considered sound trial strategy.’” Strickland at 689.
Specifically, in regard to claims of ineffective assistance of appellate
counsel, the United States Supreme Court has upheld the appellate advocate’s
prerogative to decide strategy and tactics by selecting what he thinks are the most
promising arguments out of all possible contentions. The court noted:
“Experienced advocates since time beyond memory have emphasized the
importance of winnowing out weaker arguments on appeal and focusing on one
central issue if possible, or at most on a few key issues.” Jones v. Barnes, 463 U.S.
745, 751-752, 103 S.Ct. 3308, 77 L.Ed.2d 987 (1983). Indeed, including weaker
arguments might lessen the impact of the stronger ones. Accordingly, the court
ruled that judges should not second-guess reasonable professional judgments and
impose on appellate counsel the duty to raise every “colorable” issue. Such rules
would disserve the goal of vigorous and effective advocacy. The Supreme Court of
Ohio reaffirmed these principles in State v. Allen, 77 Ohio St.3d 172, 1996-Ohio-366,
672 N.E.2d 638.
Moreover, even if a petitioner establishes that an error by his lawyer
was professionally unreasonable under all the circumstances of the case, the
petitioner must further establish prejudice: but for the unreasonable error there is
a reasonable probability that the results of the proceeding would have been
different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine
confidence in the outcome. A court need not determine whether counsel’s
performance was deficient before examining prejudice suffered by the defendant as
a result of alleged deficiencies.
It is difficult to discern exactly what Scarton is arguing. She states her
sole assignment of error as follows: “The trial court’s prison sentence for Murder is
contrary to law because the full facts and circumstances surrounding the actual
crime mitigate the charge to that of vehicular homicide, according to definition,
pursuant to the Ohio Revised Code, §2903.06.” She frames the issue as a sentencing
error, when she seems to be really arguing that the judge should have directed a
verdict for vehicular homicide. Alternatively, she could be arguing that trial defense
counsel should have asked for, and argued vehicular homicide, or she could be
arguing that her appellate counsel should have argued that it was error for the trial
judge not instruct the jury on vehicular homicide. Other parts of her application
indicate that she is arguing that the prosecutor overcharged her with murder, when
he should have sought a conviction for vehicular homicide. Furthermore, she
submits that Sergeant Jackson testified that he was at the scene of the crime when
he was not.
To the extent that she is arguing that the trial judge should have
directed a verdict for vehicular homicide, her argument is ill-founded. Her appellate
counsel argued that there was insufficient evidence of murder and that the verdict
was against the weight of the evidence. This court examined the trial record and
concluded that the evidence supported a conviction for murder. Without clearing
that threshold hurdle, arguing that she committed only vehicular homicide is
Her trial counsel did ask for an instruction on vehicular homicide but
the trial judge denied the request. Thus, trial counsel was not ineffective for not
arguing this point. Moreover, it appears that the defense strategy was an “all or
nothing” strategy, arguing that the incident was a tragic accident and objecting to
the lesser included offense of voluntary manslaughter. Following the admonition of
the Supreme Court, this court will not second-guess the trial strategy.
Similarly, appellate counsel considered arguing the failure to instruct
on vehicular homicide. However, because State v. Rivers, 10th Dist. Franklin No.
98AP-1322, 1999 Ohio App. LEXIS 3430 (July 27, 1999) held that vehicular
homicide is not a lesser included offense of murder, he concluded that the argument
had little chance of success. Instead, he argued that the trial judge erred by not
instructing on accident. Again, following the admonition of the Supreme Court, this
court will not second-guess counsel’s professional judgments on strategy and tactics.
Finally, the court has reviewed Sergeant Jackson’s testimony. It is
clear that he testified that he was not at the scene of the crime but, rather, at the
police station with the Scartons and their friend. Furthermore, appellate counsel
argued that his testimony introduced impermissible hearsay evidence.
Outcome: Accordingly, this court denies the application to reopen.