Widmer bathtub murder case back in court

After nearly six years, 39 days in trial, 66 hours worth of jury deliberations, four state court appeals and a sojourn to the highest court in the land, the quest to free Ryan Widmer lives on.

Widmer’s pro bono appellate attorney Michele Berry-Godsey filed a writ of habeas corpus in the U.S. District Court in Cincinnati late last week, asking the judge to free Widmer, who was convicted of the death of his wife, Sarah. The 150-page court document contains six assignments of error and a dozen grounds for relief — the bulk of which involve the former lead detective in the case, Jeff Braley, in one way or another.

Berry-Godsey outlined a host of allegations that Widmer’s Constitutional rights were violated throughout the protracted case, most have already been decided against by the 12th District Court of Appeals and the Ohio and U.S. supreme courts.

Her main arguments have been that the bathtub in which Sarah Widmer drowned on Aug. 11, 2008, was illegally seized; testimony regarding “prints” on the tub was based on junk science; that Widmer should have been allowed to test Sarah’s DNA for a rare genetic disorder; and that all three juries should have been told about Braley’s alleged misrepresentations of his qualifications.

Braley made a “meteoric” rise up the ranks in the Hamilton Twp. police department, which, according to Berry-Godsey, was largely due to his false claim that he had served the in elite Special Forces unit of the military. She also alleges township officials and others were wrong to try to quelsh questions about Braley’s credibility. She tells the court, in a sometimes sarcastic tone, that Braley made missteps throughout the investigation.

“Braley’s insights and word naturally would have carried more weight than the average officer, and for good reason,” she wrote. “A dead body in a middle-class home in Warren County would have been nothing compared to what Braley had handled in the far corners of the globe while serving in the Special Forces. When one has worked shoulder-to-shoulder with professionals who train for tasks like tracking down and assassinating Osama Bin Laden by parachute landing, unraveling a bathtub mystery in Hamilton Twp., Ohio, is not even resume worthy.”

This sensational case that has drawn national and international attention has had many twists and turns, including mystery witnesses, the lead detective forced to resign, in-laws who staunchly supported Widmer at first, then were on the prosecutor’s side of the courtroom by trial time, and the attorneys accusing each other of misdeeds.

The first verdict in this case in April 2009, delivered after 23 hours of deliberations, was guilty. The crux of the case was when first responders arrived minutes after Widmer dialed 911, the bathroom and Sarah’s body were virtually dry and only her blonde hair was damp. Prosecutors claimed Widmer drowned his wife of four months and then staged his 911 call.

The verdict was tossed out after it was revealed several jurors performed at-home drying experiments and shared their findings with fellow jurors. The jury in the second trial in 2010 was hung after 31 hours of deliberations. Several jurors said the lack of evidence of a struggle in the tiny bathroom was key and although first responders said the scene was dry, they could tell the magazines that littered the floor had been wet.

The last trial that started in January 2011 included mystery witness Jennifer Crew from Iowa, who testified Widmer confessed to her in September 2009 during a drunken phone call. Another out-of-state witness, Melissa Waller from Washington state, testified in Widmer’s defense that he wasn’t upset or drunk when she spoke to him minutes before he talked to Crew.

These out-of-towners were two of the 44 witnesses for the third trial, and they were drawn into the case after they saw Widmer on a “Dateline” episode in 2009 and on the “Free Ryan Widmer” website.

Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell could not be reached for comment but has remained staunchly convinced Widmer is guilty of murder and that Braley was a mere bit player in the case.

“If you’ve got a belief that everybody at every potential step in this process has had some reason to wrongfully accuse and prosecute Ryan Widmer, then I guess you would say that person has a better shot in federal court,” he said previously. “But I disagree with the underlying premise, that all of these people combined to join into a mass conspiracy to convict a person that nobody had ever met prior to the night he killed his wife.”

Ian Friedman, a legal expert and past president of the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said Widmer has a decent chance of prevailing at this level of the process.

“I still think there is meat on the bone here for the court to consider,” he said. “There were some real issues to question at the trial level.”

Take a look back at our complete coverage of the Ryan Widmer case from the beginning»

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