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Prosecutorial misconduct leads to reversal in arson case

Special to the Legal News

Published: July 8, 2013

The 9th District Court of Appeals last week reversed a decision made by the Medina County Court of Common Pleas based on prosecutorial impropriety, even though it ruled that the evidence was sufficient for a conviction.

Vincent Labriola appealed his conviction for complicity to commit arson, a felony of the fourth degree, after a trial jury found him guilty and the court sentenced him to three years of community control.

Labriola first contended that the trial court erred as a matter of law because the state failed to establish sufficient evidence to support the charge.

In the opinion she wrote on behalf of the district’s three-judge appellate panel, Judge Donna Carr stated the court of appeals disagreed with Labriola and the state met its burden of production at trial.

Labriola did not dispute that his employee, Steven Combs, committed arson by setting fire to an outbuilding on Chad Barco’s property.

However, he argued that the state failed to present sufficient evidence to prove that he knowingly solicited Combs to burn the barn.

According to case summary, Barco and Labriola left for an overnight camping trip to southern Ohio on May 20, 2011. Chris Adam and Ryan Sweeney joined them on the trip.

The next day, Barco went up a nearby hill to check his messages on his cell phone since there was no reception at the campsite.

He had received a text message from his wife telling him he needed to call the Montville Police Department.

Upon returning the call, he was informed that one of the structures on his property had burned down.

The officer on the phone further asked him if he knew a Steven Combs, whom the police had apprehended in a Volkswagen, registered under a female’s name, near the scene.

Barco did not recognize the last name but knew that a Steven worked for Labriola.

He also testified he knew Labriola routinely drove a Volkswagen that was registered in his mother’s name.

Though Labriola remained very quiet when Barco returned to the scene and let the men know what happened, he soon admitted that he had Combs burn down the barn “because (he) was trying to do Barco a favor.”

“I had him burn (it) down,” Labriola said, according to testimony from Adam.

Barco testified the building was insured but the police ruled out the possibility of fraud.

He also claimed that he never gave permission to anyone to burn the building down and that he did not leave the obscenity-laden note found at the scene of the crime.

Police discovered the handwritten note left on a table on a covered back porch.

It was secured under an unopened can of Budweiser beer that was specially packaged for the upcoming memorial holiday.

Officer Bret Harrison testified he stopped a Volkswagen Jetta that evening approximately 200 yards north of Barco’s property because the car had no lit tail lights. The car was registered to Labriola’s mother.

After identifying the driver as Steven Combs, Harrison testified he smelled alcohol emanating from the car and saw numerous Budweiser beer cans, some open and some not, in the cup holders and strewn about the vehicle.

The officer stated at trial that the beers were specially packaged with a red, white and blue design commemorating the Memorial Day holiday. They matched the can found at the scene of the arson.

Harrison also claimed he smelled a strong odor of gasoline in the car.

Based on Combs’ slurred speech, glassy eyes and fumbling manner with the car window, Harrison arrested Combs for operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol.

A search of the car revealed a 12-pack container of Budweiser with five full cans and five empty cans, several lighters, matches, rubber gloves and a cell phone. Another lighter was found on Combs’ person.

After obtaining a warrant to search the contents of Combs’ cell phone, police discovered a text sent from the phone to a “Vincent.” The number later turned out to be Labriola’s cell phone.

The text message, sent at 11:19 p.m. on the night of the fire, read, “... & the Lord said: ‘Let there be light.’ Hence, done deal, M.F’r!”

“Reviewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the state, this court concludes that any rational trier of fact could have found that the essential elements of the charge of complicity to commit arson were proved beyond a reasonable doubt,” wrote Carr.

Though the court of appeals overruled that assignment of error, it ruled differently on Labriola’s second assignment, which stated that the prosecutor’s remarks during closing argument rose to the level of prosecutorial misconduct and prevented Labriola of his right to a fair trial.

His contention was that the state’s repeated comments about his lack of credibility resulted in prejudice against him.

The appellate panel agreed, holding, “Although the state is generally accorded a certain degree of latitude during closing argument, the prosecutor is a servant of the law whose interest in a prosecution is not merely to emerge victorious but to see that justice shall be done.”

During closing argument, the state repeatedly commented on Labriola’s testimony as untruthful, implausible and full of lies.

For instance, the state asserted, “This man right here, Vincent Labriola, his testimony is full of mistruths and lies ... You heard what I call and what I submit to you is false testimony of the defendant.”

The assistant prosecutor also asserted that Labriola’s “excuses” were implausible and that he “in fact, lied.”

The state argued that he was “a lair throughout the case.”

“The state even went so far as to effectively inform the jury that they must either believe or discount all testimony from any single witness,” wrote Carr.

The court of appeals concluded that the repeated comments about Labriola’s untruthfulness crossed the line into impropriety.

“In fact, the crux of the state’s argument was that Labriola lied under oath, while the state’s witnesses told the truth.”

Concluding that the state’s misconduct deprived Labriola of his constitutionally protected right to a fair trial, the Medina County court’s conviction was reversed and the matter remanded.

Presiding Judge Eve Belfance and Judge Beth Whitmore concurred with Carr to form the majority.

The case is cited State v. Labriola, 2013-Ohio-2604.

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