Death sentence upheld for Cleveland man who killed parking lot owners


Joseph McAlpin, sentenced to death

Image of a smiling inmate

Joseph McAlpin, sentenced to death

The Ohio Supreme Court today upheld the death sentence of a Cleveland man who killed the husband and wife of car dealership owners while stealing two cars and cash.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court found overwhelming evidence that Joseph McAlpin entered the Mr. Cars dealership and robbed and murdered Michael Kuznik and Trina Tomola in April 2017. After independently weighing aggravating and mitigating factors, the Court concluded that the death penalty was properly imposed.

McAlpin elected to represent himself at his trial, and a “stand-by attorney” was appointed to assist him in procedural matters. Among challenges to his conviction, McAlpin claimed he was entitled to a new trial because his reserve attorneys interfered with his trial preparation and strategy.

Writing for the Court, Judge Melody Stewart noted that McAlpin claimed many mistakes were made during his trial because, while acting as his own lawyer, he did not know when to object or how to argue. ensure that his constitutional rights were protected. However, the Court found that none of the errors impacted his “substantive rights” and did not affect the outcome of the trial.

In addition to joining the majority opinion, Judge Patrick F. Fischer wrote a concurring opinion, stating that the Court must recognize that the Ohio Constitution permits “hybrid representation”. Hybrid representation is the right to represent oneself with the assistance of a lawyer. It provides clearer guidelines, giving lawyers a greater role than the restrictive duties of reserve counsel, but still allowing defendants to participate fully in their defense, he concluded.

Threesome Conspiracy to steal cars
Andrew Keener testified at McAlpin’s trial that he met McAlpin and his brother on the east side of Cleveland. McAlpin’s brother told Keener that he and McAlpin planned to steal cars and sell them. He promised Keener money and drugs if Keener drove any of the vehicles off the lot.

Keener said he saw McAlpin, with a gun hidden under his sweatshirt, on a side street near Mr. Cars. About 20 minutes later, McAlpin called him to drive a 2006 Mercedes off the field. McAlpin left in a 2008 BMW. The cars were driven to the west side of Cleveland, where Keener exited. He said he learned days later that two people had been killed at the dealership and he never got paid. Keener pleaded guilty to the charges related to the deaths of Kuznik and Tomola and was sentenced to six years in prison.

Kuznik and Tomola lived with their three children around the corner from Mr. Cars, a dealership started by Kuznik’s father. After calling and receiving no response from their parents around the usual closing time, the children became concerned. The eldest son, Colin Zackowski, 19, went to the grounds around 9:30 p.m. and discovered that Kuznik and Tomola had been shot with the family dog, who regularly accompanied the couple to work. He called the police.

Police identify suspect from security cameras
Cleveland police detectives learned that on the day of the murder, two customers paid $7,500 cash for vehicles. Kuznik’s wallet was stolen and no other money was found on the ground. The security video system, including the digital video recorder, was stolen.

Investigators were able to obtain footage of a business across the street from Mr. Cars’ lot and another business a block away. Police then received an anonymous tip that McAlpin and his brother were involved. Patrol officers recovered the stolen vehicles.

DNA evidence was collected from the scene and from the vehicles. DNA matching McAlpin’s profile was found on computer equipment in Mr. Cars’ back office, from inside Kuznik’s trouser pocket and from inside the stolen BMW.

McAlpin was arrested approximately two months after the murders. He denied any involvement. He was charged with two counts of aggravated murder, with death penalty specifications for each count, and several other crimes.

Evidence pointed to the suspect
The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office performed the autopsies, and the assistant medical examiner said Kuznik and Tomola were shot at close range.

An FBI special agent aided the investigation by reviewing cellphone records, which showed McAlpin was in contact with his brother and Keener at the time of the murders. Investigators also tracked the calls to where Keener said he parked the stolen car. McAlpin’s cellphone location information showed he was moving in a manner consistent with Keener’s account of events.

Google searches on McAlpin’s account included information about different firearms and how to change the title on a vehicle without the owner’s permission.

A DNA analyst from the medical examiner’s office testified that McAlpin’s DNA was almost certainly found in samples taken from office equipment, the interior of the BMV, and Kuznik’s pocket.

A jury found McAlpin guilty on all counts and recommended that he be sentenced to death for the couple’s murder. The lower court imposed the death penalty and an additional 63 years in prison for non-death penalty offences.

Because McAlpin was sentenced to death, the Supreme Court automatically reviewed his case.

Lawyers wrongfully interfered in case, offender argued
McAlpin raised 17 legal arguments in his appeal, including a charge that his court-appointed attorneys interfered with his trial strategy and preparation. McAlpin disagreed with his attorneys after they were appointed and told the court he would represent himself.

The trial court warned McAlpin that he might run into trouble and, while honoring his request to represent himself, the judge appointed standby counsel. The judge informed McAlpin that the reserve attorneys were there only to help him through procedural hurdles and could only act on his behalf if he no longer chose to represent himself.

McAlpin’s interference request centered on the role of reserve counsel in coordinating the production of a DNA evidence report from an expert witness.

Before withdrawing his lawyers, his defense team hired a company to carry out an independent DNA analysis of the evidence. After firing the attorneys, McAlpin told the court he wanted all information from defense investigators passed to him and for investigators to meet with him while he was in jail.

McAlpin complained that he was not getting any information from his reserve attorneys regarding expert witnesses or their reports. He asked that the lawyers be replaced and the trial court appointed a second group of substitute lawyers. Before receiving information with the help of his new attorneys, McAlpin told the trial judge that he was ready to proceed with the trial.

After his conviction, McAlpin requested a new trial, stating that the DNA analyst at the medical examiner’s office was at fault and the DNA evidence ruled him out as a suspect. During a hearing on the request for a new trial, McAlpin argued that one of his new attorneys had twice denied his request to prepare an expert DNA report for the defense. McAlpin said the attorney told him the report would not be helpful in his defense.

McAlpin said the attorney gave the defense expert the impression that she could not communicate with McAlpin without the attorney present. McAlpin argued that instead of advising him, the attorney was interfering with his ability to gather information and prepare his defense. McAlpin told the trial court that had he had the defense expert’s DNA report, he could have effectively cross-examined the medical examiner’s DNA analyst on his findings.

The Cuyahoga County prosecutor at the retrial request hearing argued that McAlpin was not entitled to a new trial and that his defense attorney made a good decision in advising McAlpin not to get the defense expert’s report. The prosecutor explained that the lawyer had told McAlpin that the results would not be favorable to him and that he would only confirm the information produced during the trial.

Complaint analyzed by the Supreme Court
Judge Stewart noted that McAlpin did not object to the DNA expert’s testimony during the trial, but only raised the issues in his appeal. Because of this delay, McAlpin had to prove that but for the alleged interference of his lawyers, there was a reasonable likelihood that the jury would have acquitted him, the opinion explained.

McAlpin argued that he needed the report to undermine the medical examiner’s testimony. But the court found there was no evidence that if a defense expert report had been prepared, it would have aided McAlpin’s cross-examination. In fact, McAlpin even confirmed that in a conversation with the head of the lab hired to assist his defense, he was told that a report would not be favorable to him, the opinion notes.

The Court dismissed the interference argument and all of McAlpin’s other claims.

2019-0926. State vs. McAlpin, Landslide Notice No. 2022-Ohio-1567.

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