Michael Roper wants fifth trial
He, his attorney and investigator claim evidence of other suspects withheld
Beacon Journal staff report
Michael Roper, the Akron man convicted of murdering a convenience store owner after three mistrials, wants a shot at a fifth trial.
In court papers filed Wednesday, Roper and his attorney claim Summit County prosecutors withheld evidence that pointed to three other suspects, any of whom may have killed Taleb ``Tom'' Husein in April 2000.
Roper, 28, is serving a life sentence for the killing. He has always maintained his innocence.
His conviction was based in large part on two eyewitnesses and a jail inmate who claimed Roper confessed to the killing.
Roper's attorney, Jana DeLoach of Akron, and private investigator Martin Yant of Columbus said those two components -- eyewitness identification and so-called jailhouse snitches -- are frequently found in cases of wrongful imprisonment.
Roper is asking Common Pleas Judge Judy Hunter to grant him a new trial or at least an evidentiary hearing on claims that prosecutors withheld information on three other suspects identified to police before Roper went on trial.
``I think when you combine the two -- the eyewitness identification and the jailhouse snitch -- I think it greatly increases the chance that Mr. Roper was wrongfully convicted,'' said Yant, who has helped 10 inmates overturn their convictions.
Prosecutors maintain the evidence against Roper was sound and that the jail inmate's testimony was bolstered by the recovery of a .38-caliber revolver in Summit Lake -- just where the inmate said Roper confided he dumped the weapon after the shooting.
Tests could neither confirm nor eliminate the gun as the murder weapon.
Assistant Prosecutor Mary Ann Kovach said the information about the three other suspects was included in files shared with Roper's defense attorneys during his four trials.
Kovach, who prosecuted Roper's fourth trial, said defense lawyers also suggested to jurors that the jail inmate looked like Roper and could have committed the killing.
``I am totally unaffected by the motion filed,'' Kovach said.
Misidentification was explored at length at trial, she said, and the jury obviously rejected that defense.
``So we don't believe the motion for a new trial has any bearing at all on the convictions,'' she said.
Husein, 49, was killed inside his Lakeshore Boulevard store during an aborted robbery attempt. His girlfriend, who witnessed the shooting, identified Roper from a photo array developed by an informant who claimed Roper was responsible. A doughnut delivery man also identified Roper, but only after seeing his picture in the newspaper.
Roper claimed he was with his girlfriend in a home four miles away from the shooting. His first three trials took place over eight months in 2000-2001 and each ended without a verdict when jurors could not reach a unanimous decision.
He was convicted in September 2001, primarily on the strength of testimony by jail inmate Thomas Witcher.
Roper's appeals have been denied ever since. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
DeLoach said Wednesday that regardless of whether prosecutors withheld the names of the three alternative suspects, or if defense lawyers Timothy Ivey and Kerry O'Brien failed to see the reports, Roper was denied a fair trial because that evidence wasn't presented to jurors.
One of the suspects is said to closely resemble Roper. A source told Akron police in April 2000, a week after Roper's arrest, that the alternative suspect is ``off his script (insane) and has a heart of coal and killing would (be) easy for him, if someone doesn't end up killing him first.''
``There's no question the jury would have found reasonable doubt as to Mr. Roper's guilt and they would have acquitted him had they been told about the other suspects,'' DeLoach said.