Sudderth may get second chance at freedom

Published 10:10 am Wednesday, April 29, 2009

An Ironton man convicted of murder nearly two years ago will get another chance to ask for freedom, thanks to an Ohio Fourth District Court of Appeals ruling issued last week.

The appeals court has told the Lawrence County Common Pleas Court to reconsider a request for post conviction relief from Isaiah Sudderth, who, in 2007, was convicted of murder in the death of fellow Irontonian Damon Pringle.

Post conviction relief is a request by a convicted felon to have a judge essentially set aside the jury’s guilty verdict because of unusual circumstances. In this case, Sudderth claims he did not have good legal counsel.

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Sudderth was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. He appealed that conviction but the fourth district appeals court upheld his conviction.

However, while his appeal was pending in the court of appeals, Sudderth also filed a post-conviction relief petition in Lawrence County Common Pleas Court.

In this petition Sudderth maintained he received ineffective assistance from his trial attorney, Roger Smith, because Smith “did not adequately apprise him of the law surrounding ‘murder, self-defense, duty to retreat and voluntary manslaughter,’” the appeals court’s ruling said.

“Had he been sufficiently apprised of these matters, appellant continues, he would have requested that counsel (1) enter into plea negotiations for voluntary manslaughter, or (2) request a jury instruction for voluntary manslaughter.”

Initially, the local court dismissed the petition for lack of jurisdiction.

Later, however, the court granted a motion for reconsideration but denied Sudderth’s request for post conviction relief a second time. Sudderth then asked the fourth district to review this matter as well.

In their ruling, the appellate judges said that rather than address the actual merits of his petition, the lower court appears to have rejected the petition because some of the claims in the request for post conviction relief duplicated some of the claims Sudderth made in his appeal.

The lower court also contended that since these claims of ineffective counsel were raised and rejected in Sudderth’s appeal, his request for relief from the lower court was a moot point.

“We disagree,” Judge Peter Abele wrote in the opinion for the appeals court. “First, our decision in Sudderth I (Sudderth’s appeal) was issued one month after the trial court overruled appellant’s post-conviction relief petition. …Second, although we agree that these ineffective assistance claims are related, they are not identical. The claims in Sudderth I involved counsel’s tactical decisions at trial.

“The ineffective assistance claim raised in the postconviction relief petition, however, involves pre-trial advice that trial counsel gave to appellant.”

Along with Abele, judges Howard Harsha and Matthew McFarland concurred in the ruling.

Smith was contacted by phone and a message left at his law office.

He had not returned that telephone call as of press time. Sudderth’s appellate attorney, W. Joseph Edwards, of Columbus, was also contacted but did not return phone messages left at his office. Assistant Lawrence County Prosecutor Jeff Smith, who prosecuted Sudderth, declined to comment on the matter because it is pending in court.