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State v. Bonnell

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Eighth District, Cuyahoga

December 26, 2019

STATE OF OHIO, Plaintiff-Appellee,
MELVIN BONNELL, Defendant-Appellant.

          Criminal Appeal from the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Case No. CR-87-223820-ZA


          Micahel C. O'Malley, Cuyahoga County Prosecuting Attorney, and Christopher D. Schroeder, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, for appellee.

          Timothy Young, Ohio Public Defender, and Kimberly S. Rigby and Erika M. Lahote, Assistant State Public Defenders, for appellant.


          LARRY A. JONES, SR, JUDGE.

         {¶1} In 1988, defendant-appellant Melvin Bonnell ("Bonnell") was sentenced to death after a jury found him guilty of two counts of the aggravated murder of Robert Bunner ("Bunner") with felony murder and firearm specifications, one count of aggravated burglary with firearm and aggravated felony specifications, and recommended a death sentence to the trial court.

         {¶ 2} In the years since, as will be set forth below, Bonnell has been challenging his convictions and sentence, without success. The record shows (and has been conceded by the state through the years) that some evidence from the crime scene was either not collected or preserved, including blood droppings from the back porch and its railing; vomit located near Bunner's body; certain fingerprints; substances on Bonnell's hands; the contents of Bonnell's car; and some of the clothes Bonnell was wearing on the night of the murder. The failure to collect and preserve the evidence has been a central challenge made by Bonnell throughout the years.

         {¶ 3} Relative to this appeal, in January 2018, Bonnell filed a motion for leave to file a motion for a new trial, contending that he had new evidence. In January 2019, the trial court denied his motion for leave without a hearing, and adopted plaintiff-appellee's, the state of Ohio, unopposed proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the trial court's judgment.

         Factual Background

         {¶ 4} The following facts are summarized from the direct appeal, State v. Bonnell, 8th Dist. Cuyahoga No. 55927, 1989 Ohio App. LEXIS 4982 (Oct. 5, 1989).

         {¶ 5} As mentioned, the victim was Bunner. He lived with Ed Birmingham ("Birmingham") and Shirley Hatch ("Hatch") in the upstairs portion of an apartment on Bridge Avenue in Cleveland. On November 27, 1986, Bunner, Birmingham, and Hatch began drinking in their apartment at noon. Bunner and Hatch continued drinking into the early morning hours of the following day; Birmingham, who was intoxicated, went to bed at 8:30 p.m. Id. at 2.

         {¶ 6} At approximately 3:00 a.m., on November 28, Hatch heard a knock on the back door. She looked through the peephole on the door, but could not identify who was there; the person outside identified himself as "Charlie." Hatch then asked Bunner to help; Bunner opened the door. Id.

         {¶ 7} When Bunner opened the door, Hatch saw Bonnell standing there with his hands in his coat pocket. Bonnell walked into the kitchen, uttered an expletive, and fired twice at Bunner at close range. Hatch testified that Bonnell then turned to her, but she was able to run to Birmingham's bedroom. Bonnell, 8th Dist. Cuyahoga No. 55927, 1989 Ohio App. LEXIS 4982.

         {¶ 8} Hatch woke Birmingham up, and Birmingham went into the kitchen where he saw Bonnell sitting on top of Bunner and striking him repeatedly in the face. Id. at 2-3. Birmingham intervened, pulling Bonnell off Bunner; Birmingham then threw Bonnell out the door and down the back steps. Hatch called the police. Id. at 3.

         {¶ 9} Two of the downstairs tenants testified at trial. They heard a commotion at the time in question, and at about the same time they heard the commotion, they also heard what they believed was someone falling heavily to the floor. One of them also testified that it sounded like someone had fallen down the back steps. The neighbors testified that they did not see a car, but heard the sound of car wheels "squealing." Immediately after hearing the "squealing," one of the neighbors saw a police car with its lights on pass by the apartment. Id.

         {¶ 10} Meanwhile, two Cleveland police officers were patrolling on Bridge Avenue when, at approximately 3:40 a.m., they saw a blue Chevrolet without headlights on travelling backward on the street. The police attempted to stop the car, but the driver, later identified as Bonnell, sped away and a chase ensued. Bonnell eventually crashed into a funeral home. Bonnell, 8th Dist. Cuyahoga No. 55927, 1989 Ohio App. LEXIS 4982.

         {¶ 11} One of the officers at the crash scene received an emergency call about the murder at the apartment and left to respond to that scene. Upon arriving at the scene, the officer got a description of the assailant and realized that it matched the person who had crashed the blue Chevrolet into the funeral home, that is, Bonnell. Bonnell was transported to the hospital, where Birmingham identified him as the assailant. Id. at 3-4.

         {¶ 12} The police searched the crash area and found a .25 automatic pistol. Test firings of the pistol revealed that it fired the bullets that were removed from Bunner's body. Id. at 4.

         {¶13} Bonnell presented witnesses on his behalf. The witnesses corroborated a statement Bonnell had made to the police, that on the day of the incident, he had been out drinking with a friend, Joe Popil. In his statement, Bonnell maintained that Popil owned the gun and was driving the blue Chevrolet. According to Bonnell, Popil stopped at the Bridge Avenue address and entered the apartment alone with the weapon. When Popil returned to the car, he put the gun in the glove compartment. Bonnell stated that he (Bonnell) passed out from the drinking and did not remember anything thereafter until he woke up in the hospital. According to Popil, he had been out with Bonnell, but he maintained that he was driven home at 11:30 p.m., whereupon he got sick from drinking. Bonnell, 8th Dist. Cuyahoga No. 55927, 1989 Ohio App. LEXIS 4982 (Oct. 5, 1989).

         Procedural History

         {¶ 14} As mentioned, this case has been extensively litigated in the years since Bonnell was convicted and sentenced. The following is a summation of the prior history.

         Direct Appeal

         {¶ 15} In his direct appeal to this court, Bonnell raised 30 assignments of error challenging his convictions and sentence. The alleged errors included challenges to the sufficiency and weight of the evidence, allegations that the state failed to provide exculpatory or favorable evidence prior to trial, and an allegation that the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress an unnecessarily suggestive line-up. This court found the alleged errors, with the exception of one, without merit and affirmed the convictions but remanded for resentencing solely on the aggravated burglary conviction. Id. at 42.

         Appeal to Ohio Supreme Court

         {¶ 16} Bonnell appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, where he presented 29 propositions of law. The court found the "evidence of [Bonnell's] guilt to be overwhelming," and affirmed his convictions and sentence. State v. Bonnell, 61 Ohio St.3d 179, 183, 187, 573 N.E.2d 1082 (1991).

         Attempted Appeal to United States Supreme Court

         {¶ 17} Bonnell attempted to appeal to the United States Supreme Court, but the court denied his petition for a writ of certiorari. Bonnell v. Ohio,502 ...

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