Ohio prosecutors broke rules to win convictions and got away with it
Ernie Haynes never imagined that taking care of his three grandsons after his daughter's drug overdose death would turn him into a felon at the hands of a longtime Ohio prosecutor known to sidestep the rules intended to protect a defendant's rights in criminal trials.
A week after his daughter died in December 2017, the court granted temporary custody of the children to their biological father, a man Haynes said also struggled with drug addiction. When Haynes refused to give up his grandchildren, Wood County authorities arrested him and charged him with six counts of abduction. The action sparked a five-year legal battle to clear his name.
"We never got to grieve ... because immediately we were plunged into this hell," said Haynes' wife, Marcella Haynes.
Ernie Haynes, 59, didn't know it, but the assistant prosecutor who would try his case, Thomas Matuszak, had a track record of repeatedly violating legal standards to sway juries at trials and win convictions, according to court findings. He would do the same in Haynes' case.
And it wouldn't be the last.
Matuszak is one of about 100 prosecutors across Ohio who the courts found had violated standards meant to preserve a defendant's civil rights in criminal trials, an investigation by Columbia Journalism Investigations, NPR and member station WVXU in Cincinnati, and The Ohio Newsroom found. He is one of 13 who did so more than once. Together, these 13 prosecutors accounted for nearly one-third of the 104 cases in the state where courts found that prosecutors acted improperly.
CJI and its partners examined hundreds of state appellate decisions to identify claims of prosecutorial misconduct in Ohio, reviewed hundreds of pages of police records and personnel files, and interviewed dozens of criminal justice experts, legal scholars, judges and defense attorneys from around the United States, along with prosecuting attorneys, and defendants whose cases were affected by the wrongdoing.
Among the findings:
- Of the scores of criminal trials from 2018 to 2021 in which appeals courts found that prosecutors acted improperly, most were for failing to disclose evidence and making inappropriate comments in closing arguments — violations that could have affected the defendants' ability to get a fair trial. Nearly 80% of the errors were ruled not egregious enough to warrant a reversal, which experts say enables prosecutors to make repeated mistakes with near impunity.
- None of the prosecutors involved in repeated improper-conduct cases was sanctioned by the Ohio Supreme Court, the body ultimately charged with doling out attorney discipline.
- All of the prosecutors found to have repeatedly acted improperly have continued to practice as attorneys, with some moving into more powerful positions, including two who became judges tasked with ensuring fair trials.
The findings are a first-ever attempt to pull back the curtain of anonymity shielding Ohio prosecutors from public scrutiny when appeals courts affirm claims of improper conduct. They also show a systemic failure to hold prosecutors accountable that experts say is not exclusive to Ohio.
Legal scholars say the number of known misconduct cases is a vast undercount. About 3% of criminal cases make it to trial, and a fraction of those are appealed. Defendants often lack resources to challenge convictions, or they face procedural barriers that prevent them from doing so.
In Ohio, there were roughly 4,700 criminal trials statewide between 2018 and 2021. Nearly 450 appeals — about 10% of those trials — included an allegation of prosecutorial misconduct during that four-year period, CJI and NPR's analysis shows.
Appeals involving prosecutorial misconduct are rare, but in Ohio about 1 in 4 claims ended in a ruling of improper conduct in that time — a ratio that suggests a systemic problem, experts said.
Former prosecutor Bennett Gershman, who now teaches at Pace University's School of Law in New York, called the pattern of prosecutors who repeatedly act improperly in cases in Ohio a "microcosm" of the criminal justice system in states across the country.
In Tennessee, the Shelby County prosecutor was rebuked at least twice by higher courts in several murder cases for withholding key evidence or improper opening remarks, records show. Two of the convictions were overturned, and a new trial was ordered in one case. Voters ousted her last year.
In St. Charles County, Missouri, the state appeals court admonished a prosecutor in two cases for his "brazen use of propensity evidence" and in a third case for withholding evidence from the defendant, court records show. The attorney retired this year.
And in Monroe County, N.Y., which includes Rochester, the courts reprimanded a prosecutor in three sex crime cases for misrepresenting evidence and deals with jailhouse snitches, and for trying to slip inadmissible evidence into the record by asking the defendant to read it, according to court records. She is now a judge in a nearby county.
"Once you start focusing on these prosecutors, you can learn a lot about the prosecutorial mentality and why prosecutors engage in unethical behavior and why they consistently get away with it," said Gershman, one of the nation's preeminent scholars on the topic. "You'll find other jurisdictions in America which are equally shocking."
He said the Ohio statistics "show a shocking disregard for ethical behavior."
The investigation by CJI and its partners also found a system that rarely acts on misconduct claims involving prosecutors and that allows prosecutors to continue to skirt standards, unscathed.
Ellen Yaroshefsky, a legal ethics professor at Hofstra University's School of Law in New York, has studied misconduct at prosecutor's offices since the 1990s. She blamed "ineffective" disciplinary systems across the country, which can incentivize prosecutors to commit misconduct repeatedly.
"Disciplinary authorities need to change and recognize that these are serious violations," she said.
Throughout the U.S., state officials have tried to curb prosecutorial misconduct in myriad ways.
In 2021, then-New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill calling for the creation of an independent commission to investigate complaints involving prosecutors and hold them to high legal and ethical standards. Two years later, the commission is working to hire an executive director and staff before investigating any complaints, according to its chairman, Michael Simons. He declined to say how many complaints the commission had received to date.
In 2020, then-Florida Democratic state Sen. Randolph Bracy III proposed a similar bill. Bracy withdrew the bill within months and tried to propose similar legislation in 2022, to no avail. He said in an interview with NPR that an independent body to hold prosecutors accountable is sorely needed, in Florida and elsewhere.
"They have been used to doing whatever they want without any checks and balances," said Bracy, who left office last year. "They need to do their jobs, but we also need to watch for the people who are abusing their positions, even if it's unintentional. It's still somebody's life."
"Any means justifies my end"
Prosecutors are bound by legal and ethical standards meant to guarantee the right to a fair trial as established by the U.S. Constitution. In Ohio, prosecutorial misconduct occurs when they break those rules so egregiously that a court must overturn the conviction. Prosecutors can also engage in improper conduct, which breaks those rules but does not warrant a reversal. It can include everything from withholding evidence that would help defendants prepare their case to violating their due process rights through inappropriate comments at trial.
By the time Haynes' abduction case appeared on the docket in 2018, Matuszak had burnished his courtroom bona fides handling dozens of trials. He got his start in 1997 at the prosecutor's office in Lucas County, home to Toledo. During eight years, he gained a reputation for trial work: He was "tenacious and zealous" in his "quest for the rule of law," Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates wrote in a June 2004 memo about one of his cases.
But sometimes Matuszak went too far, she said.
"You get caught up in that philosophy that if I'm doing right and doing God's work ... any means justifies my end,'" Bates said in an interview with CJI. "Sometimes, we had to put a little bit of a muzzle on him."
In 2011, after a stint in private practice, Matuszak went to work for the prosecutor's office in Wood County, about 23 miles south of Lucas County. There, he was tapped to lead the criminal division. But misconduct allegations soon arose in one case after another — five total, including Haynes' case. Each appeal claimed he had broken rules meant to preserve due process protections during closing arguments, the last chance for a prosecutor to win over the jury.
During summation in one case, Matuszak described the defendant accused of drug-related offenses as a businessman peddling products "killing people left and right." Appellate court judges later deemed those remarks inflammatory. In another, the defendant, a woman charged with vehicular homicide, argued in her appeal that Matuszak urged jurors to "imagine what the deceased would say and envision his hands rising from the grave."
The same judges found improper conduct in the other cases that Matuszak prosecuted but overturned only one, ruling that in that case his statements had so misled the jury that the defendant — an Ohio lawyer convicted of white-collar crimes — deserved a new trial. In that case, the court ruled that Matuszak committed prosecutorial misconduct.
In an interview with NPR, Matuszak denied misconduct in any of the cases.
"No," he said about whether he ever violated ethical or legal standards. "As with any line of work, reasonable minds will disagree."
Wood County Prosecutor Paul Dobson acknowledged that his office knew about several of the misconduct allegations against Matuszak and said he advised Matuszak to "draw back even farther than somebody else would."
"Frankly, Tom's the best prosecutorial trial attorney I've ever seen," Dobson said. "He's fearless, and that fearlessness would lead him closer to that line more often" than his peers.
By the time Haynes' case went to trial, Matuszak had ample warning that he was crossing the line. Appellate judges had already found that he had acted improperly twice, and the other two findings were not far behind.
But the higher court's prior admonishments didn't stop him. In final remarks at Haynes' trial, Matuszak misrepresented the legal standard needed to prove that the grandfather had kidnapped his grandchildren. He also failed to provide a bill of particulars, a formal document laying out exact dates, times and conduct of the crime.
"The law said if we gave open discovery, we didn't have to give a bill of particulars," Matuszak said in response to why he didn't provide it.
Wood County trial court judge Matthew Reger, who presided over the proceedings, wondered why prosecutors were pursuing charges against Haynes.
"Hearing the facts of this case ... I couldn't understand what we were trying to achieve," Reger said in an interview.
Still, jurors found Haynes, who has an eighth-grade education and is dyslexic, guilty of three counts of abduction — third-degree felonies — and sentenced him to a year of probation. In May 2019, Haynes filed his first appeal, claiming the prosecution had violated his constitutional rights.
More than a year later, the court found that Matuszak's comment during summation regarding the legal standard was "erroneous."
But for the fourth time in four years, his improper conduct was deemed not egregious enough to have affected the trial's outcome; the appeals court upheld the conviction. Many experts consider this kind of ruling the legal equivalent of a slap on the wrist.
In December 2022, the Ohio Supreme Court vacated Haynes' conviction, ruling that Matuszak should have filed a bill of particulars.
Matuszak, who maintains that he did nothing wrong, was never disciplined for the five instances of improper conduct.
When Haynes heard about the high court's decision, he immediately told his wife.
"I was relieved," said Haynes, who said he has taken anxiety medication to get through the ordeal. "It was like, 'Well, I'm not a felon now.'"
His wife, Marcella Haynes, said Matuszak should be punished.
"I think a lot about all these innocent people that spend years and years and years in prison," she said. "I know how traumatic it was on us. I can't even imagine what their lives must be like."
Marcella Haynes said that she and her husband have yet to get custody of the three grandchildren, whom they haven't seen since Ernie Haynes' December 2017 arrest.
No documented reprimand
Prosecutor's offices are the first line of defense against misconduct: They can retrain, suspend or fire subordinates who repeatedly violate the rules. But a copy of Matuszak's personnel file contained no mention of any steps taken to discipline him or prevent him from committing future improper conduct.
And he isn't alone. CJI and its partners obtained the personnel files of all 13 prosecutors with more than one instance of improper conduct. None contained any mention of misconduct allegations or documented disciplinary action related to improper conduct at trial.
Justin Murray, a professor at New York Law School who studies the criminal justice system, said he isn't surprised. What prosecutor's offices nationwide are doing internally isn't "helping very much when it comes to this profoundly endemic, widespread problem of prosecutorial misconduct," he said.
In the rare instance when a prosecutor's office took action, it wasn't disciplinary action at all. Ryan Nelson, a former Hamilton County assistant chief prosecutor, was put on a corrective action plan partly because of his repeated failures to share evidence with defense attorneys before trial, records show.
Nelson acknowledged in an interview with CJI that he "was bad at a lot of things," and said his office offered little training, leaving him to figure out things for himself. Supervisors devised the corrective action plan to help him disclose evidence in a timely fashion, among other things. But it didn't prevent Nelson's role in more recent improper-conduct cases. In 2019, an appellate judge found the state had failed to produce evidence that would have favored the defendant in a vehicular homicide case. Two years later, a higher court found errors in a murder trial he helped oversee.
Nelson, for his part, denied any wrongdoing.
"I've never heard of anyone ever sanctioned or talked about for prosecutorial misconduct," he said.
Nelson, who is Black, was the only one of the 13 prosecutors in Ohio to be admonished. The others, who faced no consequences — including three more assistant prosecutors in that office — are white.
Nelson eventually was fired from the Hamilton County office for unrelated reasons. Nelson said he believes it was a political move after he was accused of helping the former elected prosecutor's rival in an election.
Supervisors have histories themselves
Responsibility for training and disciplining prosecutors often falls to front-line supervisors. But in some prosecutor's offices in Ohio, these supervisors have histories of misconduct themselves.
Seth Tieger is one of the team leaders in the felony division at the Hamilton County prosecutor's office. They oversee junior colleagues, offering legal guidance and on-the-job training. At times, they co-prosecute cases with their apprentices.
Tieger, a 42-year veteran of the office, is widely viewed as a talented litigator adept at winning convictions in complex trials. But he also has a history of prosecutorial misconduct.
By 2018, after nearly two decades as a supervisor, Tieger had amassed two misconduct rulings and four findings of improper conduct, records show. In those latter four cases, appellate judges found his conduct was not egregious enough for a reversal. Over the next three years, the appeals court found he had violated standards during closing arguments in three more trials. Only one would end in a reversal. That was the case of Samantha Davis, who had lost control of her vehicle and was thrown from her Dodge Ram truck before it veered off a 90-foot-high overpass, plummeting onto another car and killing its two passengers.
At Davis' trial in March 2019, records show, prosecutors relied on testimony from an accident reconstructionist to argue that the single mother of two had driven recklessly. But they hadn't submitted a report identifying that witness as an expert at least 21 days before trial, as required by a state rule governing what evidence prosecutors must share with the defense.
In final remarks, Tieger asked jurors to find Davis guilty, reassuring them that the judge "will do the right thing in figuring out what sentence will be appropriate," according to trial transcripts. Davis was convicted of aggravated vehicular homicide and sentenced to eight years in prison.
Davis claimed on appeal that the prosecution had violated her due process rights during closing arguments and accused her defense attorneys of not properly objecting to the expert testimony.
In May 2021, Ohio's First District Court of Appeals agreed that Tieger's remarks about sentencing were improper, but wouldn't have affected the verdict. The court also called the expert testimony "instrumental" and said that without it, the jury may have considered the remaining evidence differently. The court granted Davis a new trial based on her attorneys' failure to properly object to the expert testimony.
Davis, now 33, opted instead for a plea deal this year rather than risk getting an 18-year maximum sentence. She also said she feared facing Tieger again.
"I felt I was judged right away and that facts almost didn't matter," said Davis, who is serving time at a women's prison near Columbus until next October.
Tieger did not respond to several emails and phone calls seeking comment.
Tieger isn't the only one on his team known to have committed improper conduct more than once in criminal trials. Allison Oswall, once a Tieger subordinate described by one long-standing attorney in Cincinnati as his protégée, also has more than one improper-conduct case, records show. Each one occurred under Tieger's supervision.
During a rape trial in June 2019, Oswall questioned a nurse about her professional opinion without having identified her as an expert witness to the defense. Like in the Davis case, the appeals court later found the testimony had damaged the defendant. It granted a new trial.
In another case that year, Oswall searched a defendant's jail cell without a warrant. Tieger then defended her conduct in court after the defendant filed a motion for a mistrial, alleging that she violated his constitutional right to counsel by reviewing privileged legal documents.
An appellate judge later called Oswall's actions "reckless and misguided" and Tieger's approval of them "beyond this court's comprehension." The court did not, though, grant a new trial.
In December 2022, Oswall became Tieger's assistant team leader, earning an annual salary of more than $100,000.
Reached by phone, Oswall refused to discuss the rulings and referred questions to the Hamilton County prosecutor's office. Assistant Prosecutor Amy Clausing, the spokesperson for the office, did not return four calls or respond to two emails requesting interviews with Oswall and Tieger. Hamilton County Prosecutor Melissa Powers did not return two calls seeking comment.
Held to a "higher standard"
When Ohio prosecutors violate legal and ethical rules, whether once or repeatedly, they can be held accountable through a patchwork disciplinary system tasked with protecting the public from bad lawyering. This multistep "grievance" process fields misconduct claims primarily through the Ohio Supreme Court's Office of Disciplinary Counsel, staffed by 12 full-time attorneys who review them.
The office investigates alleged misconduct. If it finds an allegation warrants action, it files a formal complaint with the Ohio Board of Professional Conduct, a 28-member body appointed by the highest court. A smaller panel decides whether there's "substantial, credible evidence that misconduct has been committed," its rules state. Complaints remain confidential until they reach this stage. The board can recommend sanctions to the court, which decides what discipline to mete out.
"The purpose of [a disciplinary sanction] is not to punish the individual. It is to protect the public, the courts and the legal profession," the highest court wrote about its role in a 2012 brief.
Yet none of the 13 prosecutors found to have committed improper conduct more than once and identified by CJI and its partners has been sanctioned by the Ohio Supreme Court for their rule violations, records show. And only two county prosecutors across Ohio were sanctioned for trial misconduct over a seven-year period, according to an analysis of state data on nearly 550 attorney discipline cases from 2014 to 2020.
By contrast, the highest court has disciplined civil trial attorneys for comparable conduct. At least 25 civil trial lawyers were reprimanded, suspended or disbarred for failing to disclose evidence and other discovery violations during that same period.
Paul De Marco, formerly with the Ohio Board of Professional Conduct, said the numbers show the system "cannot plausibly maintain that it is adequately policing itself as long as prosecutors avoid discipline for misconduct that's comparable to that for which civil attorneys receive actual discipline."
Ohio's disciplinary officials argue that not all prosecutorial misconduct warrants formal board sanctions and that it's hard to compare prosecutors' discovery violations with the discovery issues for which civil attorneys get disciplined. Still, they say Ohio's prosecutors shouldn't be above the rules.
"Prosecutors should be held [to] exactly the same standard if not a slightly higher standard because of the power they wield," said Chris Cook, chairman of the Board of Professional Conduct and a Lorain County trial court judge.
Joseph Caligiuri, of the Ohio Disciplinary Counsel's Office, agreed.
"It's a fair criticism," he said, about the lack of punishment for offending prosecutors. "There's always room for improvement on how we approach things," Caligiuri said.
It's unclear whether anyone has filed allegations against the 13 prosecutors or whether any disciplinary body knew of their misdeeds. Allegations that don't make it past the "substantial, credible evidence" stage remain sealed from the public. The Disciplinary Counsel's Office said it fields about 80 to 100 complaints about prosecutors annually.
Even when these claims are filed, the office can fail to take public action. Four confidential letters obtained by CJI, NPR and its partners show the office declining to investigate allegations against prosecutors without an appeals court affirming misconduct.
Another confidential letter shows that even after a Mahoning County trial court judge found improper conduct severe enough to remove a prosecutor from a case and file a grievance about it, the disciplinary counsel declined to pursue formal charges against her.
Then-Mahoning County Assistant Prosecutor Dawn Cantalamessa did not disclose until just before a murder trial that a key witness had failed to identify the defendant in a lineup, even though she had it in her case file for two years. She then made a false statement to the trial court judge, prompting her removal from that case.
"To leave this conduct unchecked would undermine the integrity of our system of justice," the judge wrote in an opinion that was shared with disciplinary counsel.
Following the removal, the Mahoning County prosecutor's office put her on administrative leave, the only disciplinary action noted in her personnel file during her nearly two decades in the office. She resigned and went to work as the chief assistant prosecutor of the criminal division in another Ohio county.
In the September 2022 confidential letter, which Cantalamessa shared with CJI, the Disciplinary Counsel's Office wrote that had she reviewed her file, "she may have discovered the oversight sooner," and that "there is no doubt the state was aware of the [evidence]." The office found Cantalamessa had made a false statement to the court, but not "knowingly."
Ultimately, the office decided there was insufficient evidence to discipline Cantalamessa. Her removal from the case and job loss were punishment enough, it said.
In an interview, Cantalamessa denied that her resignation stemmed from any disciplinary action and said she was considering the move before her suspension. That Ohio's Office of Disciplinary Counsel declined to take action against her shows she did nothing wrong, she said.
In a second letter about Cantalamessa and the same case, the disciplinary counsel declined to take action against her even after a former colleague had alleged improper conduct in 12 additional criminal cases spanning a 15-year period.
Caligiuri declined to comment on Cantalamessa's case. Generally, he said, it can be difficult to prove that an attorney knowingly violated disciplinary rules. His office tries to lay out its conclusions in its response letters even if it doesn't move forward with discipline.
"We're going to take this opportunity to educate someone on how close they came and why we decided not to go forward," he said.
Caligiuri has recently updated office procedures for reviewing prosecutorial misconduct claims filed by criminal defendants, he said. Staff now scrutinize alleged misconduct if a defendant can't turn to the appeals court process for relief.
In neighboring Pennsylvania, Thomas Farrell, the chief disciplinary counsel for that state's Office of Disciplinary Counsel, implemented similar policies to deal with prosecutorial misconduct in 2020. He said his office now proactively tracks court rulings of prosecutorial misconduct and he requires his staff to consult him before dismissing screened complaints. That, he said, has "made my staff take them more seriously."
Since implementing the changes, Farrell said, his office has reviewed 34 complaints against prosecutors; seven have resulted in disciplinary action, including two disbarments.
"That is significantly more discipline than we've imposed in the past," Farrell said.
Without systemic reform, experts believe, prosecutorial misconduct will continue. Murray, of New York Law School, is among a group of law professors in that state who have banded together to file grievances against 45 prosecutors in the last two years — some for repeated misconduct. To date, none appears to have been disciplined. Murray said he doubts that meaningful change can happen if disciplinary authorities won't take action against prosecutors.
"It's really hard to have confidence that small adjustments tinkering within our existing legal frameworks are going to get us very far," he said.
The pattern continues
Without intervention from Ohio's disciplinary officials, some prosecutors have continued their wrongdoing.
In 2020, nearly three years before the Ohio Supreme Court would vacate Haynes' conviction, Matuszak left the Wood County prosecutor's office for a position in nearby Ottawa County, one of the state's smallest counties and which borders Lake Erie.
Now at his third county prosecutor's office, he has racked up another two rulings of improper conduct — raising his total to seven.
In those recent cases, Matuszak told jurors during the trials' last moments that they would be sending a message to the crime victims if they didn't find the defendant guilty. The appeals court ruled that Matuszak had unfairly evoked sympathy for the victims and called his remarks in the two trials "strikingly similar." Yet again, it upheld the convictions.
Matuszak abruptly ended the interview with NPR by hanging up before being asked about those cases.
"I'm not going to sit here and say that I didn't cringe" when hearing the summation comments, said James VanEerten, Ottawa County's elected prosecutor.
He said he has discussed the rulings with Matuszak and is confident the prosecutor won't make the same mistake that he made in those two cases again.
VanEerten said he didn't know about Matuszak's previous five rulings when hiring him after a "pretty glowing recommendation" from Wood County's prosecutor, who had described Matuszak as one of the office's best trial prosecutors, and attributed any differences between the two to stress and a high workload.
"I had zero idea that there was any pervasive history involving Mr. Matuszak and potential prosecutorial misconduct claims," said VanEerten, who vowed to look into the cases.
James Alliman, one of the defendants in the latest misconduct cases, said he didn't know about Matuszak's history until he researched it while serving a life-without-parole prison sentence for raping his two daughters. Alliman said what he found was mind-boggling. Looking at all the trials that Matuszak has handled, Alliman said, he can't help but wonder whether the prosecutor "present[ed] the truth, or did they pull the wool over everybody's eyes?"
This past July, an appeals court found that Matuszak's failure to produce an expert report to Alliman before trial was so unjust that he deserved a new one.
Alliman is waiting for a new trial date.
This story is a collaboration from NPR's Station Investigations Team, which supports local investigative journalism; Columbia Journalism Investigations, an investigative reporting unit at the Columbia Journalism School in New York; and NPR member station WVXU in Cincinnati.
Gabriela Alcalde, Jake Kincaid, Patricia Martínez Sastre and Cameron Oakes reported this story as fellows for CJI. Nick Swartsell is a reporter at WVXU. CJI research assistants Frances Howe and Jake Millman, as well as NPR senior producer Robert Benincasa and Roy W. Howard fellow Tirzah Christopher, contributed to the data analysis. The Ohio Newsroom, a collaboration among Ohio public radio stations, helped produce this story.
This story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
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