The knife collection of a man accused of raping and killing a female bartender should not have been introduced into evidence at trial because the weapons weren’t used in the slaying, a divided Ohio Supreme Court ruled Wednesday as it overturned the conviction and death sentence of the accused.
The ruling sends the case of defendant Joseph Thomas back to northeastern Ohio’s Lake County for a new trial.
Thomas, 33, was convicted and sentenced to death in 2012 for the slaying of Annie McSween two years earlier.
Prosecutors say Thomas attacked the 49-year-old McSween by her car after she asked him to leave the bar where she worked.
Writing for the majority, Justice Terrence O’Donnell said the trial judge improperly allowed into evidence a knife collection belonging to Thomas but not involved in the killing. Allowing the five knives was misleading given the circumstantial case against Thomas, O’Donnell said.
“This evidence painted Thomas as someone with bad character and allowed the jury to convict him on the basis that he acted in conformity with it,” O’Donnell said.
Justice Patrick Fischer, writing for the minority, noted that prosecutors argued Thomas was known to carry a blue knife, and that knife was missing from his collection. Fischer acknowledged it was a “close question” whether introducing that evidence was a mistake.
Lake County Prosecutor Charles Coulson said Wednesday he’ll ask the court to reconsider its decision.
The knife collection “was introduced because the defendant had a blue knife, people saw the defendant having a blue knife that night, when we go to his collection, the blue knife is missing,” Coulson said. “So that’s circumstantial evidence toward part of the crime.”
The prosecutor has 30 days to file for reconsideration.
John Parker, Thomas’ defense attorney, said he was happy with the ruling.