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After 20 years in prison for a murder he says he didn't commit, his conviction was overturned, but he's not free yet

County prosecutor's office is retrying case in May
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Posted at 4:56 PM, Feb 23, 2022

CLEVELAND — Sitting on a couch watching TV is something so many of us take for granted every single day.

For Michael Buehner, that moment is more than 20 years in the making.

Buehner was convicted of aggravated murder in 2002. The victim: 18-year-old Jerry Saunders.

Buehner was 24 years old at the time, and for two decades, has continually maintained his innocence.

“I’ve fought through the appellate court for 12 years, all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and that didn’t work,” Buehner said.

But in 2014, a family friend filed a public records request and received 30 Cleveland Police reports that were not given to Buehner’s attorneys during the original trial.

They included statements from two witnesses who said the gunman was a different race than Buehner, with witness Deborah Powell later testifying in 2019, “wasn’t no white guy there.”

“If we don’t continue to fight for this, and show the innocence of my client, then no one is holding the state of Ohio responsible for their actions and inactions,” said Russell Randazzo, Buehner’s attorney.

It took many more years with Buehner still behind prison bars before the Eighth District Court of Appeals overturned his conviction in December 2021, finding the state of Ohio improperly withheld evidence.

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Michael Buehner

In January 2022, Michael Buehner stepped into the world a partially free man. Partially free because the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office is re-trying this case — scheduled now for May.

“So I think part of the explanation is that the prosecution probably honestly believes he’s guilty and they’re wedded to that belief,” explained Daniel Medwed, an expert on wrongful convictions and a professor at Northeastern University in Boston.

Medwed said in decades-old cases like this, the evidence is often stale, eyewitnesses are gone, and spending time, money, and resources on them doesn’t make a lot of sense when someone has already served so much time.

“It’s not a question of being tough on crime or soft on crime, it’s about being fair on crime,” Medwed said. “When there are plenty of other crimes out there deserving of prosecution and haven’t yet been prosecuted.”

Buehner isn’t alone.

Cuyahoga County also plans to re-try the overturned convictions of Kenny Phillips and Michael Sutton, who went to prison in 2006 and have maintained their innocence ever since. An appeals court granted them the right to a new trial in 2021, citing lack of evidence, and the pair has been released on bond.

According to Sutton's attorneys with the Ohio Innocence Project, he is scheduled to be retried in April.

“He is looking forward to clearing his name and continuing to rebuild his life,” attorneys said in a statement.

Prosecutors also retried 84-year-old Isaiah Andrews, who spent nearly 46 years behind bars before a jury acquitted him in about a day last October.

“The jurors indicated they were going to sign the not guilty verdict in 15 minutes, but they felt bad because the evidence was so lacking,” said Marcus Sidoti, Andrews’ attorney.

RELATED: 84-year-old man exonerated after 46 years in prison sues Cleveland for withholding evidence in wife's murder case

Andrews is suffering from stage 4 cancer, too ill to sit down with us, so we spoke with Sidoti about the prosecutor’s decision to retry the case.

“I think they knew what the results were going to be, it’s just to see what sticks, because [O’Malley] is taking a public position against compensating individuals when there is police misconduct — and he should reevaluate that,” Sidoti said.

News 5 reached out to Prosecutor Michael O’Malley’s office for their side. They told reporter Homa Bash that because most of these cases are still pending, they respectfully declined to sit down for an interview.

O'Malley's office sent a statement that reads, in part: “convictions can be affirmed or overturned for a variety of reasons. When a conviction is overturned, we would be doing a disservice to the victims of these violent crimes if we didn’t continue to pursue justice on their behalf. When a case is retried, we accept the results, whatever the outcome.”

Medwed said retrials like these are often due to the ideology in the prosecutor’s office.

“It sounds like in Cuyahoga County, for whatever reason, the leadership in the DA’s office might perceive it as a sign of weakness for them not to forward again,” Medwed said.

It boils down to cases being retried after overturned convictions due to Brady violations — police misconduct, withheld evidence.

The wheels of justice turn slowly — we know that.

For Michael Buehner, the last 20 years locked up have meant missing his children growing up, missing his mother’s funeral, missing every moment that mattered.

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Michael Buehner

“And the rollercoaster my family goes through, the ups and downs, it’s not just me whose done this time, it’s my family and my friends and my loved ones who have done this time with me,” Buehner said.

But even with a retrial hanging over his head and the possibility of going back to prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit, Buehner said he refuses to be angry.

He was a GRE tutor and law clerk in prison and found his passion in helping others, which is what he plans to continue doing if and when he’s a fully free man.