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Ohio man served 21 years for robbery that may not have happened. Now, he's getting $1.3 million

COLUMBUS, Ohio – An Ohio man will receive $1.3 million from the state of Ohio as compensation for the 21 years he spent in prison for a reported home invasion and robbery that perhaps never occurred.

Ralph Blaine Smith will split the amount with his lawyers, who in December filed a wrongful imprisonment claim against the state in the Ohio Court of Claims. A settlement agreement between the two parties was reached shortly thereafter.

On Monday, the Ohio Controlling Board approved the release of the settlement payment to Smith for his wrongful imprisonment claim.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Smith said the settlement will allow him to take care of his family.

"They helped me out a lot when I was incarcerated with visits and phone calls. I'd like to make things a little easier on them," he said.

Smith was accused of being one of two Black men who forced their way into a Lancaster home that was occupied by a man and a woman and their young children on Feb. 2, 2000. The adults told police the intruders reportedly forced one of them to open a safe, from which they stole rare comic books and approximately $10,000 in cash.

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Judge claims prosecutors withheld evidence

The prosecution's case hinged entirely on the two adult victims identifying Smith from a photo array, which they reaffirmed in court testimony. There was no other evidence linking Smith to the crime, and no one else has been charged in the case. None of the items reported stolen was recovered.

Fairfield County Common Pleas Judge Richard E. Berens in June 2021 granted Smith a new trial, ruling that prosecutors at the time had withheld evidence that suggested the crime never occurred.

Ralph Blaine Smith, who spent 21 years in prison for a reported home invasion and robbery may have never occurred, will receive a $1.3 million settlement from the state. He's shown here in a photo taken at the office of his attorney on July 2, 2021.
Ralph Blaine Smith, who spent 21 years in prison for a reported home invasion and robbery may have never occurred, will receive a $1.3 million settlement from the state. He's shown here in a photo taken at the office of his attorney on July 2, 2021.

Fairfield County Prosecutor Kyle Witt, who wasn't the prosecutor at the time of Smith's conviction in August 2000, later decided to drop all charges against Smith rather than pursue a second trial.

The motion for a new trial for Smith focused on evidence suggesting that the crime may have been staged. Among the pieces of evidence that county prosecutors at the time failed to provide to the defense was a narrative supplement, written by one of the first police officers to arrive at the residence after the reported robbery.

That supplemental narrative "contains numerous observations expressing skepticism about whether a crime had occurred," Berens stated in his order granting Smith a new trial. The responding officer wondered how multiple men could have conducted an armed home invasion and fled the Lancaster house without leaving tracks in the snow that covered the area.

Berens determined that evidence was "exculpatory," meaning that it could create reasonable doubt about the defendant's guilt and that prosecutors were required to share it with the defense.

Smith also is pursuing a federal lawsuit against the Pickerington police detective who investigated his case, the city of Pickerington and Fairfield County. Depositions in that case are ongoing, said Columbus defense attorney Joe Landusky.

Also named as a defendant in that lawsuit filed in January 2022 in the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Ohio in Columbus was then-Fairfield County Prosecutor Gregg Marx, who handled Smith’s case. But U.S. District Chief Judge Algenon L. Marbley in November dismissed the claims made against Marx, court records show.

Monroe Trombly covers breaking and trending news. Contact him at mtrombly@dispatch.com or on Twitter at @monroetrombly.

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Ohio man awarded $1.3 million after serving 21 years in prison