Last week, the 6th District Court of Appeals handed down a decision that rattled some chains in the Wood County Prosecutor’s office.
In the case of State of Ohio versus Robert E. Searfoss III, 42, of Perrysburg, the defendant appealed the jury’s decision and the appellate court overturned much of the decision. The court also alleged prosecutorial misconduct against the county office and one of the attorneys.
Searfoss was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2017 after a jury found him guilty of aggravated theft, money laundering, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, grand theft and aggravated theft. He was originally charged in May 2017 in a 14-count indictment.
All these charges were as a result of his actions as an attorney with his business, Searfoss Law LLC.
The decision, released Nov. 5, was weighty and complex, covering 75 pages.
“We are analyzing it and our options on how to move forward,” said Paul Dobson, Wood County prosecutor. “As offended as I am, it is important that we take any discussion of prosecutorial misconduct very seriously. In this case it is misstated as to their view. There is no one in our office who was engaging in any intentional improper action.
“We take that very seriously. They are categorizing something the court allowed us to do as being our intent to do something in violation of the law. That is not the case.”
In its discussion of prosecutorial misconduct, Searfoss alleges that the state committed the misconduct “by opining as to his credibility during its closing argument, denigrating defense counsel and misrepresenting the law and evidence throughout trial.”
The court said they have to decide if the “prosecutor’s remarks actually were improper and if they were, whether any of the defendant’s substantial rights were adversely affected.”
The appellate court dissected the first argument of misconduct and found it not to be credible, and found there was no merit to the second argument.
However the third argument for misconduct was verified by the court.
“Upon due consideration of the record, we find the prosecutor’s reference to the Trust Code and the Rules of Professional Conduct throughout the trial was extensive and improper. Given the likely impact this conduct had on the jury in inviting a criminal conviction based upon alleged violations of civil law, we find that the prosecutor’s misconduct deprived appellant of a fair trial, and thus constitutes reversible error.”
The appeals court found that argument “well taken,” overturned his conviction and remanded the case back to the trial court for a new trial. Because the court found the money laundering convictions were not supported with sufficient evidence, he cannot be retried on those charges.
In the discourse of its ruling, the appellate court discussed some details about the case as it involved Searfoss’s work on an account where he was both a part of the trust and the legal trust he was representing.
The court noted, “Now, as the defendant said, he can’t validly consent if you have been deceived. The definition of deception is critically important in this case, not simply because it’s a theft case, but because it is a theft case where the defendant was a trustee. Somebody who owes fiduciary duties — special duties — What some might consider sacred duties.”
Much of the case focused on that trust fund where Searfoss served as a trustee.
Searfoss and his attorneys focused part of the appeal on a PowerPoint presentation by the prosecution which was not submitted into evidence. However, it was used as a tool to assist the jury on the sequence and details of the events in the case.
One of the contentions of the appeal is that the PowerPoint presentation used by one of the state’s witnesses should not have been allowed. According to the appellate court, “we find that the PowerPoint presentation was a pedagogical device, not a summary under Evid.R.1006. Thus the trial court erred in allowing testimony regarding the PowerPoint presentation.”
It further stated, “Because we find that the trial court abused its discretion in allowing the state to utilize (the) PowerPoint … we find appellant’s first assignment of error well taken.”
The prosecution also filed an appeal alleging that the trial court erred when it denied certain motions and its merging of several counts.
The appellate court cited federal law in ruling on the money laundering charges.
“Because the record contains insufficient evidence to support these counts we find that each of appellant’s four money laundering convictions must be reversed and vacated. Accordingly, appellant’s third assignment of error is well taken.”
Dobson said he took issue with some of the allegations and decisions of the appellate court.
“When you have a lawyer break his responsibility criminally, you have to give them what they deserve. Now that is considered a violation. I disagree with the foundation of that finding. We are not going to apologize for being zealous. If we as lawyers don’t police the practice of law and lawyers there’s literally no one else to do that. We lawyers are all lawyers who are duty-bound to hold them accountable.”