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New Ohio self-defense law shifts burden of proof to prosecutors

Posted at 4:59 PM, Mar 27, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-27 18:00:55-04

CLEVELAND — Prosecutors in the Buckeye State are feeling the pressure.

A new state law, set to go into effect Thursday, shifts the burden of proof in self-defense cases.

"Our job became much more difficult with the new law," said Saleh Awadallah, Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor.

Before even hitting the books, the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office has dropped murder and voluntary manslaughter charges against a Cleveland man who said he opened fire to defend himself.

Up until now, if someone claimed self-defense in a murder the burden was on them to prove it.

The new Ohio law shifts this responsibility to prosecutors to prove the shooter or victim didn't have reason to use deadly force.

"Not only do they have presumption of innocence on the underlying charges, they also have the presumption they acted in self-defense," said Awadallah.

We're already getting our first look at what this will mean for those on both sides of the courtroom.

"As you see in the video, there is a very aggressive attack on him and he's rebuffing that attack by using the weapon that he had," said Awadallah.

Awadallah is talking about a October 2017 altercation at the Westender Tavern which ends with Joshua Walker shooting and killing Aaron Mason.

"We felt that we could prove that he did purposely kill and sustain the murder charges, but analyzing under the new law that we could not sustain our burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that he was not acting in self-defense," said Awadallah.

That claim consists of three elements, and in Walker’s case the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office determined that the state's evidence presented at trial would not have proved beyond a reasonable doubt that at least one of the three elements of Walker's self-defense claim was not met.

"It will be more difficult to prosecute. The court indicated they're going to apply the new law and not the existing law at the time of the event. That he didn't violate the duty to retreat, that he wasn't the cause of the incident and that he had a reasonable belief of serious physical harm, and or imminent death,” said Awadallah.

Awadallah told News 5 that Walker was able to benefit from the law changing and the burden shifting.

His charges were dismissed.

The implications of this now could mean a shift in the number of self-defense cases navigating the courts.

"You'll see less cases perhaps go to trial or even be prosecuted go to a grand jury with that in mind," said Awadallah.

Right now, the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office is trying to determine if they need to re-evaluate any current cases under the new law.

Meantime, Joshua Walker is not totally cleared in this case. He was on federal probation at the time of the shooting and he's currently facing charges for having a firearm.

News 5 spoke with Mason’s mom over the phone late Wednesday afternoon.

“On behalf of myself and my family, the prosecutor did not work in our favor. We should have been able to go to trial to decide if this was self-defense. The prosecutor painted this as a brawl at a bar, and by dismissing this case made a statement that my son deserved to be shot and killed,” said Harriet Bryson.