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High Court rejects appeal from rapist sentenced to life in prison

Special to the Legal News

Published: March 9, 2017

The Ohio Supreme Court recently upheld the denial of a writ of habeas corpus for an inmate who was sentenced to consecutive terms of life imprisonment.

David Dunkle, who is currently serving his sentences at the Marion Correctional Institution, argued that a clerical error entitled him to immediate release from prison and that the Third District Court of Appeals improperly dismissed his petition for habeas corpus.

"Because Dunkle has failed to raise a valid challenge to the trial court's jurisdiction to sentence him and because he had an adequate remedy in the ordinary course of the law, we affirm the judgment of the court of appeals," the high court wrote in its per curiam review of the case.

According to court documents, in 1986, Dunkle pleaded guilty to an 11-count indictment that charged him with five counts of rape and six counts of complicity to rape including firearm specifications.

Three of the counts alleged that one of the victims was under the age of 13 and that through force or the threat of force, Dunkle compelled that victim to rape other victims.

The trial court sentenced Dunkle to indefinite prison terms of 10 to 25 years for each of the first five counts and on counts 10 and 11.

He was sentenced to life imprisonment for each of three counts and to a three-year term for an attached firearm specification.

The court ordered that Dunkle serve the indefinite prison term be served consecutively to the life sentences, that he serve each of the life sentences consecutively, and that he serve the sentence for the firearm specification consecutively to all the other sentences.

Dunkle filed his petition for a writ of habeas corpus in 2015, arguing that errors in the sentencing entry meant that the trial court acted outside of its jurisdiction and therefore could not sentence him to life.

According to Dunkle, in the sentencing entry, the judge "changed" the crimes charged in three counts to "complicity to commit rape" from "complicity to rape" and incorrectly identified the crimes charged in those counts as violations of "R.C. 2923.02(A)(4)," which at the time of Dunkle's sentencing, as now, does not exist in the Ohio Revised Code.

"Dunkle appears to contend that the court's mistake in citing R.C. 2923.02(A)(4) in Counts 6 through 9 means that the court had no jurisdiction to sentence him for those offenses," the high court wrote.

The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction filed a motion to dismiss Dunkle's petition and the court of appeals granted the department's motion and dismissed Dunkle's petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

"In his habeas corpus petition, Dunkle challenged the validity of the 1986 sentencing entry, but sentencing errors are not jurisdictional and thus are not cognizable in habeas corpus," the Supreme Court held. "The trial court had general subject-matter jurisdiction over Dunkle's case under R.C. 2931.03. Dunkle has failed to present a valid challenge to the jurisdiction of the Licking County trial court to sentence him in that case."

The high court noted that Dunkle could have challenged the validity of his sentencing entry in a direct appeal but chose not to.

"The availability of adequate remedies in the ordinary course of the law, even if those remedies were not sought or were unsuccessful, precludes the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus," the court concluded.

The Supreme Court was unanimous in its denial of the writ.

The case is cited Dunkle v. Dept. of Rehab. & Corr., Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-551.

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