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UPDATE | After a Mahoning prosecutor was dismissed from a murder case, we took a closer look at where other cases went wrong

A months-long Mahoning Matters investigation into cases with which Dawn Cantalamessa was involved uncovered several times over the past several years that conduct in the county prosecutors office was called into question by defense attorneys and judges during criminal cases.
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From left to right: Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains and former assistant county prosecutors Dawn Cantalamessa and Martin Desmond

[Editor's note: This story has been updated with new records provided to Mahoning Matters Tuesday clarifying that Natasha Frenchko was not the prosecutor assigned to a 2007 rape case in which the courts ruled an evidence disclosure violation had occurred.]

YOUNGSTOWN — The alleged misconduct of a former Mahoning County prosecutor — who was removed from a murder case earlier this year and resigned soon after — is part of a civil lawsuit against the county prosecutor’s office that’s set to move ahead this week.

Instances in which former county assistant prosecutor Dawn Cantalamessa or other assistant prosecutors in the county have been accused of impropriety were also submitted to the FBI, to urge a criminal investigation into operations in the prosecutor’s office, court records show.

Former assistant prosecutor Martin Desmond says he blew the whistle on Cantalamessa’s alleged misconduct years ago, and brought his concerns to county Prosecutor Paul Gains. But Gains fired him in retaliation soon after, as alleged in a civil lawsuit Desmond filed in March 2018 against the prosecutor’s office.

Cantalamessa spoke out last week for the first time since her resignation in August and said she feels unfairly targeted by Desmond, calling his efforts “defamatory.” Cantalamessa discussed with Mahoning Matters some of the cases in question and offered more insight into their circumstances.

In July, a Mahoning County Common Pleas Court judge removed Cantalamessa from a murder case after determining she made false statements to the court and that she didn’t properly disclose evidence that could have helped the defendant, as required by criminal procedure rules.

A months-long Mahoning Matters investigation into cases with which Cantalamessa was involved shows that was just one of several times over the past several years that conduct in the county prosecutors’ office conduct was called into question by defense attorneys and judges during criminal cases.

During the course of this investigation — launched with a sweeping public records request filed two months ago, and through which the prosecutor’s office furnished thousands of pages of court filings, transcripts and evidentiary and police reports — Mahoning Matters identified several other instances in which assistant prosecutors, including Cantalamessa, appear to have broken court rules, violated defendants’ rights or mishandled evidence.

Below are summaries of what our investigation found. To read more about a particular case, click the title:

2019 | State v. Lavontae Ezhell Knight

A Mahoning County judge disqualified Cantalamessa from the 2019 murder case against Lavontae Knight.

The court ruled Cantalamessa gave a false statement to the court and also failed to turn over evidence that could have helped Knight’s defense. The judge called it a "careless indifference to ascertaining the truth."

Cantalamessa resigned from the Mahoning County Prosecutor’s Office soon after her removal from this case.

2017 | State v. Katrina Layton

Relatives of Shannon Graves, who was murdered in 2017 by Arturo Novoa, then dismembered by Novoa and his girlfriend Katrina Layton, filed a local grievance against Cantalamessa for her conduct as prosecutor.

Graves' sister Debbie DePaul says her family was never informed of Layton's release from jail following her plea deal in 2018, which they believe may be a violation of Ohio's Crime Victims' Bill of Rights.

Cantalamessa was eventually replaced as prosecutor on the Graves case by a special prosecutor from the Ohio Attorney General's office.

2005 | State v. Antonio Jackson

The court declared a mistrial in the capital murder case against Antonio Jackson, who was charged and later pleaded guilty to killing a 19-year-old woman.

The court determined county prosecutors failed to turn over a piece of evidence to defense attorneys, as required under criminal procedure rules.

Cantalamessa, who was one of the latest among several assistant prosecutors to handle the case when the mistrial was declared, said previous prosecutors failed to properly record the evidence in question.

2006 | State v. Darrin Moore

Darrin Moore was charged as a juvenile with the sexual assault and robbery of a woman in 2003.

Moore, after turning 18, agreed with county juvenile prosecutors to have some of his charges dismissed in exchange for having his case bound over to the county's Common Pleas Court — but he was indicted on those charges anyway.

An appellate court decided the deal prosecutors struck was "disingenuous" and unfair to Moore and cleared those charges.

2007 | State v. Carl Chaney

An appeals court ruled Cantalamessa violated Carl Chaney's constitutional right to due process by making "improper" statements during trial about Chaney's refusal to speak with police following his rape arrest — something that can't be used against a defendant.

The appellate court reversed Chaney's four rape convictions.

2007 | State v. Tony G. Brown

Attorneys for Tony Brown, who was accused in 2007 of raping a young girl, claim they were never told that the alleged victim later recanted her statement.

The girl in early 2008 admitted to prosecutors that she made up the story. But Brown's defense attorneys claim prosecutors "hid" her recantation from them for more than a year.

2018 | State v. Albert Byrd

Defense attorneys for Albert D. Byrd IV said they were "ambushed" at trial when an alleged eyewitness' trial testimony differed substantially from her previous statements to police.

That eyewitness told police she saw the August 2018 altercation in which Byrd was accused of stabbing a man to death — and in which Byrd claimed self-defense — but didn't offer any information identifying Byrd as the aggressor.

Cantalamessa went over that eyewitness' expanded testimony just before trial, but the court ruled she should have informed defense attorneys about it ahead of time.

Who prosecutes the prosecutors?

Ohio Supreme Court records show Cantalamessa hasn’t faced any state-level discipline or other sanctions for her legal work.

Mahoning Matters also requested from the county prosecutor's office all instances of verbal or written discipline Cantalamessa faced during her time there, but the office reported “no such records exist.”

There’s a lengthy and complicated process in Ohio for investigating and possibly sanctioning attorneys for their misconduct. Through that process, only the complaints deemed to have substance or merit are eventually disclosed to the public.

As this flowchart from the Ohio Supreme Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel shows, grievances must first be submitted to the high court’s Disciplinary Counsel or the certified grievance committee of a local bar association, which has jurisdiction over attorneys who operate in Mahoning County, or attorney misconduct that occurs there.

As in the case of Katrina Layton above, Shannon Graves’ sister Debbie DePaul contacted the Mahoning County Bar Association to complain about Cantalamessa’s conduct while prosecuting her sister’s murder case.

If one of the two bodies rejects the complaint for lack of substance or merit, the complainant can also appeal to the other. But if some substantial or credible evidence of misconduct is found at that lowest level, the grievance is then passed up to the high court’s Board of Professional Conduct. 

That board then impanels judges, lawyers and laypeople to determine if there is probable cause to escalate the claim for a formal hearing before the full conduct board.

It’s much the same way a state grand jury considers indicting offenders on felony charges, explained Canfield attorney David “Chip” Comstock, who’s one of three local attorneys designated to prosecute ethics misconduct in Mahoning County for the bar association.

Comstock said it takes the better part of a year to bring a case before the full conduct board. After arguments, that board makes its recommendation to Ohio’s Supreme Court justices for sanctions against the attorney in question. The Supreme Court then typically renders decisions within six months to a year after that, he said.

Comstock estimates he’s prosecuted about 40 cases to date in front of the Supreme Court. But there are many more complaints on file at the local level that the public isn’t privy to.

A complaint against an attorney is only made public once it reaches the Supreme Court’s conduct board, Comstock said. That means that though Mahoning’s bar association may have grievances against Cantalamessa on file — such as DePaul’s — none of them have ever progressed to the conduct board.

Evidence discovery issues like the ones noted in several cases above — including the Knight case and the Brown case — are the “biggest problematic area for prosecutors,” said attorney Thaddeus Hoffmeister, a professor teaching criminal law courses at the University of Dayton. Fundamentally, it comes down to the spirit of opposition attorneys face at bar — they naturally don’t want to give their adversaries an advantage, he said. 

But under the Brady Rule, prosecutors must.

Violations of the Brady Rule, under which prosecutors are obligated to turn over evidence that could favor defendants, might become major or minor problems for criminal cases, depending on the evidence that was withheld, Hoffmeister said. And, since neither side knows how the other is preparing to plead their case, evidence that may seem small and not very impactful to prosecutors may actually be a huge deal to defense attorneys.

“The courts are getting tougher and tougher on prosecutors that fail to turn over exculpatory information,” Hoffmeister said. “They’ve actually prosecuted prosecutors for this. This is the area [where] they’re most vulnerable.”

Mahoning Matters asked Hoffmeister what can be done to preserve public trust in the criminal justice system in the face of prosecutorial misconduct, either alleged or proven.

“Wherever you go, there’s gonna be a bad apple, unfortunately. It’s just human nature,” Hoffmeister said.

“Whether you’re in Columbus or the smallest town in Ohio, the [prosecutorial] staff’s never going to be 100 percent perfect. There’s always a potential for issues,” he said. “That’s why I think you need the checks and balances. You need defense attorneys who are going to ask the difficult questions. You need a bar here saying, ‘What you’re doing is improper. We’re going to send this up to Columbus.’”

‘Ready to move on’

Before her resignation, Cantalamessa was the Mahoning County Prosecutor’s Office’s chief trial counsel, “responsible for prosecuting the county’s most serious offenses” in the county’s Common Pleas Court, including capital murder and homicide cases as well as other “high-level” violent felonies, according to an April news release from the office.

She was first hired in 2003. She’s been involved in more than 100 jury trials during her tenure as a Mahoning prosecutor, she told Mahoning Matters last week. At the time of her resignation, Cantalamessa was being paid $91,624 a year, according to the prosecutor’s office.

Speaking to Desmond’s claims of misconduct against her — which led Desmond to seek legal protection as a whistleblower amid his wrongful termination suit — Cantalamessa suggested Desmond coveted her position as chief trial counsel, despite being the less-experienced trial attorney.

She said she feels her former co-worker is simply trying to ruin her reputation.

“We could write 100 stories about all the good things — cases that were done perfectly — no one wants to talk about those,” Cantalamessa said.

She said she was not urged to resign from the Mahoning County Prosecutor’s Office — rather, that she was “ready to move on,” she said.

Soon after, Cantalamessa was hired as an assistant prosecutor in Ashtabula County under Prosecutor Colleen O’Toole. She’s now making about $62,500 a year, that county’s auditor disclosed.

O’Toole defended Cantalamessa’s reputation in a September interview with the Ashtabula Star Beacon.

“She is still in good standing with the Supreme Court,” O’Toole told the newspaper. “In the event that would change, we would review that then.

“I presume everybody’s innocent until proven guilty,” she said.

Desmond, when asked for comment on Cantalamessa’s removal from the Knight case, due to his prior claims about Cantalamessa’s misconduct, said:

“It’s obviously disappointing when prosecutors don’t act properly, but this has been an ongoing problem with her,” he said. “We brought this to Paul Gains’ attention and he has taken no action on it. … I brought this to his attention four-and-a-half years ago and it cost me my job.”

Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains last week declined an interview with Mahoning Matters on Cantalamessa’s performance, citing elements of the records that overlap with the several pieces of still-pending litigation Desmond has leveled against Gains and his office — some of which involves Gains’ administration of the office.

Desmond calls for FBI investigation

On Wednesday, attorneys will deliver oral arguments before an appellate court on one portion of Desmond’s wrongful termination suit against Gains’ office.

Desmond in March 2018 sued the county, as well as Gains and his chief assistant Linette Stratford, alleging he was wrongfully discharged from the prosecutor’s office after accusing Cantalamessa of committing constitutional violations while handling the 2015 murder case against Marquan White.

Desmond claims Cantalamessa wrongfully indicted Kalilo Robinson, who was a witness to that murder, but who invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to speak to authorities about it. He also claims Cantalamessa then wrongfully detained Robinson without bond, and continued holding him even after prosecutors had dismissed his charges of tampering with evidence and obstruction of justice.

“In essence, Desmond believed they would be indicting Robinson for exercising his right to remain silent,” wrote Sixth District Court of Appeals Judge Christine Mayle, as reported by Daily Legal News.

Robinson later sued the prosecutor's office in federal court, but that court threw out the case.

Desmond sought legal protection as a whistleblower in regards to those claims, which was at first denied by the State Personnel Review Board. But Desmond in October 2019 won an appeal for whistleblower status in the Seventh District Court of Appeals, The Vindicator reported.

Desmond, through one of his contacts at the FBI, has apparently called for a federal criminal investigation into Gains’ office, and through his attorneys has also submitted a list of up to two dozen cases in which he believes the office acted improperly, including in his own termination, appellate court filings show. It’s unclear whether the FBI is formally investigating the office.

Attorneys on Wednesday will argue in the appellate court over whether Desmond should be required to turn over information to the prosecutor’s office about instances of misconduct in the county prosecutor’s office that he turned over to the FBI.

Though Desmond appealed to the Seventh District court based in downtown Youngstown, the Ohio Supreme Court set oral arguments to happen before a special panel at the Sixth District court in Toledo, according to The Vindicator.

Desmond claims the list of cases is protected by attorney-client privilege since he requested his attorneys communicate with the FBI. Attorneys for the county prosecutor’s office argue that by sharing that information with a third party, specifically the FBI, Desmond has waived that privilege.

The county's attorneys argue that attorney-client privilege only extends to communications between attorneys and their clients, such as legal advice. The courts have determined clients may refuse to disclose things they discussed with their attorneys, but can’t refuse to disclose factual information such as that list of cases delivered to the FBI, they wrote.

The contention between Gains and Desmond has extended beyond the courtroom. Desmond campaigned against Gains for his seat in the 2020 general election, but lost with 45 percent of the vote to Gains’ 55 percent, according to official election results from the Ohio Secretary of State.

Gains is now in his seventh consecutive four-year term as Mahoning County prosecutor.

Justin Dennis

About the Author: Justin Dennis

Justin Dennis has been on the beat since 2011, covering crime, courts and public education. Dennis grew up in Poland and Salem and studied journalism and communications at Cleveland State University and University of Pittsburgh.
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