By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - A divided Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the death sentence of a man convicted of murdering a female bartender and ordered a new trial, saying prosecutors erred in showing jurors knives not used in the crime that the man owned.
The 4-3 ruling sends the case of defendant Joseph Thomas back to Lake County for a new trial.
Thomas, 33, of Perry Township, in northeast Ohio, was convicted in 2012 for the kidnapping, rape and aggravated murder of bartender Anne McSween, 49, which occurred two years earlier in Mentor-on-the-Lake, located about 30 miles east of Cleveland.
"We are pleased and grateful for the court's ruling," Thomas' attorney Timothy Sweeney said by telephone.
Lake County Prosecutor Charles Coulson could not be reached for comment by Reuters, but he told Cleveland.com he plans to file a motion to ask the court to reconsider the decision.
Justice Terrence O'Donnell, in the lead decision, concluded the lower court committed an error admitting the weapons into evidence and allowing prosecutors to infer Thomas was "a dangerous person of violent character," and "an owner of 'full Rambo combat knives.'"
McSween was found strangled and stabbed to death on her birthday about 150 feet from the bar where she worked. Thomas was convicted of her murder after prosecutors showed jurors five knives he owned but which were unrelated to the crime.
Prosecutors argued at trial that Thomas was at the bar within two hours of the murder, had a knife that could have been used to stab McSween, and that a man matching his description was seen burning evidence within hours of the murder.
"The state did not recover the murder weapon or obtain a confession, and Thomas had no significant criminal history," O'Donnell wrote.
O'Donnell said there also was no forensic evidence linking Thomas to the crime and he passed a polygraph test denying having anything to do with McSween's death.
In the dissenting opinion, Justice Patrick Fischer wrote that Thomas' attorneys actually used the same evidence to try to prove his innocence and therefore the knives were not prejudicial.
(Reporting by Kim Palmer in Cleveland; Editing by Leslie Adler)