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

From left to right: Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains and former assistant county prosecutors Dawn Cantalamessa and Martin Desmond
From left to right: Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains and former assistant county prosecutors Dawn Cantalamessa and Martin Desmond Photos provided

[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.

2019 | State v. Lavontae Ezhell Knight

Mahoning County Common Pleas Court Judge John Durkin in July supported a motion to disqualify former assistant Mahoning County prosecutor Dawn Cantalamessa from the murder case against Lavontae Knight.

Knight, 25, stands accused of fatally shooting 25-year-old Joshua Donatelli in October 2018 during an alleged drug deal, according to court records.

A grand jury first indicted the other suspect in Donatelli’s murder, George Gutierres, in February 2019 on counts of involuntary manslaughter, attempted possession of cocaine and possessing criminal tools.

Months later, Gutierres began negotiating a plea deal, and told prosecutors that Knight was the shooter. But the court determined prosecutors were late in giving Gutierres’ statement to Knight’s attorney, David Betras of Canfield — a break of evidentiary disclosure rules.

Knight was indicted in April 2019 on two counts of aggravated murder, one count of murder and one count of aggravated robbery with a firearm, among other drug and weapon charges.

During proceedings on whether to try Knight and Gutierres separately, Cantalamessa argued that Gutierres had only denied that he shot Donatelli, and never implicated Knight.

“He never says it’s Lavontae Knight,” she told the court.

If that were the case, then it wouldn’t be prejudicial against Knight to have him tried alongside his codefendant Gutierres, prosecutors argued.

Though Gutierres didn’t implicate Knight when initially speaking to Youngstown police, he did later, when entering into plea negotiations with prosecutors. Prosecutors argued Gutierres’ statement, however, wouldn’t have been admissible in court because he had not yet accepted that plea deal.

“Candidly, this court finds that position untenable,” Judge Durkin wrote in a July 19 judgment entry, ruling prosecutors had an obligation to turn that statement over and that its admissibility was a separate matter.

“Cantalamessa’s statement that ‘he never says it’s Lavontae Knight’ was a false statement of fact,” he wrote.

Before receiving Gutierres’ statement, Betras in December 2019 argued the only thing linking Knight to the crime was a statement an eyewitness to Donatelli’s murder made to prosecutors. The woman claimed she saw Knight on TV — during a news report on another homicide — and identified him as Donatelli’s shooter.

But almost a year prior, the eyewitness had failed to pick Knight out of a photo lineup of potential suspects. Prosecutors never passed that detail on to the defense, either. Though Betras had “continuously requested” additional evidence from the state about the eyewitness, Cantalamessa said there wasn’t any to turn over.

It wasn’t until this past May, less than a week before Knight’s trial was set to begin, that prosecutors shared the photo lineup evidence with Betras, according to Judge Durkin’s July filing.

Though Cantalamessa claimed she was previously unaware that there was evidence of the results of the photo lineup, a Youngstown police detective testified he personally delivered the evidence to the prosecutor’s office in January 2019.

“Although the outcome of this trial is not yet known, Cantalamessa’s conduct has impacted these proceedings,” Judge Durkin ruled in July. “She made a false statement of material fact to this court. She failed to timely provide the codefendant’s proffer to defendant Knight. She failed to periodically and regularly review her case file.

“This failure, especially given the defendant’s repeated requests for additional evidence concerning the eyewitness, can best be characterized as a careless indifference to ascertaining the truth,” the judge continued. “To leave this conduct unchecked would undermine the integrity of our system of justice. Achieving fair outcomes is perhaps the single most important function of criminal proceedings, and the key ingredients of a fair process should extend to the innocent and the guilty alike.”

Cantalamessa declined to comment on the Knight case, as it’s still pending.

Assistant Prosecutor Jennifer McLaughlin has since filed to try the case, records show.

Knight’s jury trial has been set for March. He’s still in the Mahoning County Jail on a total $1 million bond.

Gutierres pleaded guilty in December 2019 to a single felony count of attempted possession of cocaine. Prosecutors dismissed his other charges including aggravated murder and aggravated robbery.

He’s still awaiting a sentencing hearing, which has also been set for March. He remains in the county jail without bond.

2017 | State v. Katrina Layton

Prosecutors gave Katrina Layton the “plea deal of a lifetime” for her role in the February 2017 death and dismemberment of 28-year-old Shannon Graves, said Graves’ older sister Debbie DePaul.

But Graves’ family claimed former assistant Mahoning County prosecutor Dawn Cantalamessa never gave them the opportunity to weigh in on that deal — nor were they told the deal would allow Layton to go free earlier than expected.

“She just really kept us in the dark and didn’t tell us anything,” DePaul told Mahoning Matters in a phone interview last month.

Layton’s then-boyfriend Arturo Novoa pleaded guilty to killing Graves by striking her in the head with a hammer in her Mahoning Avenue apartment, then taking Graves’ body to Layton’s apartment along Shields Road. There, the 34-year-old Layton and 31-year-old Novoa dismembered Graves’ body and used acid to dissolve her remains, before storing them in a freezer, according to reports.

Layton was arrested and booked into the Mahoning County Jail on July 20, 2017. Graves’ frozen remains were found the following August at a Campbell home, according to WKBN. Some of her remains have yet to be found.

Though DePaul and her father Ronnie attended court hearings on the murder charges, DePaul told Mahoning Matters they initially were not approached by anyone from the county prosecutor’s office or the victim services program, the latter of which usually operates as a go-between for authorities and crime victims or their relatives.

“Do I have to hire an attorney?” DePaul once asked a Youngstown police lieutenant overseeing her sister’s case. “I don’t have anybody who is here for us. … I didn’t even know we had anybody that was on our side to be here in court.”

Cantalamessa eventually introduced herself to the family but came off cold, DePaul said. The family tried passing new evidence they thought could help prosecutors, but couldn’t get their attention, she said.

“[Cantalamessa], at that point, didn’t want anything to do with us. She didn’t hear what we had to say,” DePaul said. “She didn’t want to discuss the case with us. She actually told me it was none of my business. I went off on her and told her it was absolutely my business.”

Cantalamessa denied she ever said that to DePaul. Though Graves’ family told local reporters in April 2018 that they were never informed of Layton’s plea deal, text message exchanges provided to Mahoning Matters show they were.

Prosecutors plied Layton with a plea deal, offering her probation in exchange for her testimony against Novoa. Layton initially faced a count of aggravated murder alongside Novoa, but that charge was dropped, leaving several counts of obstruction of justice and abuse of a corpse.

In fulfilling Mahoning Matters’ records request, the prosecutor’s office provided text messages from Cantalamessa to DePaul that show Cantalamessa told Graves’ family that a plea bargain was imminent. Even so, Cantalamessa didn’t offer any specifics on the deal or seek any input from them.

“We’re pleading Katrina today to testify against Arturo,” Cantalamessa texted DePaul on Feb. 9, 2018. “She will remain in jail until after the trial.”

At the time, Novoa’s trial date was March 5, but it was later continued. Layton was actually released March 28, jail records show, less than two months after her plea deal. DePaul says she was never told.

Those messages also show Cantalamessa agreed to meet with Graves’ family about Novoa’s case, but DePaul said that meeting never happened. The record of text messages provided by the prosecutor’s office appears incomplete. Though DePaul said she could provide her own record of the exchanges, she was ultimately unable to produce them before publication.

DePaul said she learned about Layton’s release after inquiring with Youngstown police, who later checked on Layton’s incarceration themselves.

DePaul said she “went ballistic.” She contacted the Ohio Attorney General’s office, then filed a grievance with the Mahoning County Bar Association, searching for some kind of recourse. DePaul said Gains later urged Graves’ family to drop the grievance against Cantalamessa, but they refused.

Soon after, Cantalamessa was removed from the Graves case and AG assistant special prosecutor Dan Kasaris took over, DePaul said. Mediation on the family’s grievance stopped there as well. Kasaris’ willingness to involve Graves’ family in the investigation was “a breath of fresh air,” she said.

Though the main condition of Layton’s post-plea release barred her from contacting Novoa or anyone else involved in the case, authorities learned she had been smuggling notes to Novoa into the county jail, according to Vindicator archives.

That new evidence empowered prosecutors to revoke her plea deal. She was sentenced in January 2020 to 18 years in prison.

DePaul told Mahoning Matters she thinks the fact that Graves’ family were never told one of the people involved in their daughter’s death was free could be a violation of “Marsy’s Law.”

Marsy’s Law offers the same rights afforded those accused and convicted of crimes to the victims of those crimes and their relatives. According to the Ohio Supreme Court, that includes the rights to offer input on plea bargains before they’re struck and be informed of changes to an offender’s status, among others.

Ohio’s codified version of Marsy’s Law, called the Ohio Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights, was passed in November 2017 and took effect the following February, just days before Layton’s plea deal, according to the Ohio Crime Victim Justice Center.

Novoa’s case didn’t go to trial. He ended up taking a plea deal more than a year later, in late May 2019, according to court records. He’s currently serving a sentence of 48 years to life and could become eligible for parole in 2065, at 79 years old.

Layton is expected to be released from prison in 2037.

2005 | State v. Antonio Jackson

A mistrial was declared March 2009 in the capital murder case against Antonio Jackson.

Jackson was charged and later pleaded guilty to shooting and killing 19-year-old Sierra Slaton, whose body was found in McKelvey Lake in November 2005, according to Vindicator archives. He was 24 at the time.

The day after Antonio Jackson’s first trial began in March 2009, however, an attorney unaffiliated with the case told Jackson’s attorneys the state had evidence that could potentially be exculpatory, meaning it would support the defendant’s innocence. Specifically, he told them about a letter from a former client of that outside attorney, in which the man claimed another person had confessed to being Slaton’s killer.

But the defense never received a copy of that evidence, as required under the Brady Rule, which compels prosecutors to also provide evidence that may favor defendants.

Prosecutors couldn’t verify the letter was actually disclosed to Jackson’s attorneys, noting the case had “been handled by several different assistant prosecutors.” Former assistant Mahoning County prosecutor Dawn Cantalamessa in open court noted the letter was unsigned and undated and was also contradicted by a separate sworn statement that client had made to prosecutors. That client, who claimed he dictated the letter to another person, also refuted it.

Though there were four separate pre-trials in the two years before trial, when the evidence could have been turned over, defense attorneys claimed they first learned of the letter during trial on March 12, 2009, when prosecutors were wrapping up their case against Jackson.

The judge declared a mistrial days later.

“The court ordered the government to make certain that all discovery was provided, and yet that was not done. No one took an hour or two to sit down and compare the items in the government’s file with the original discovery discs or with the supplemental discovery responses,” defense attorney Lynn Maro of Youngstown wrote in March 2009, in her motion for a mistrial.

“In a legal fight over whether the county should buy an old hospital building, at least four government lawyers from the prosecutor’s office were involved and spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours,” Maro continued, presumably referencing the county’s 2007 purchase of the former Southside Medical Center, now Oakhill Renaissance Place.

“But in a case where the defendant could be executed, no one took an hour or two to determine if the government had complied with the Constitution and with the orders of this court.”

Defense attorney Lynn Maro of Youngstown Source: Mahoning County Common Pleas Court

County prosecutors didn’t dispute a violation occurred, but contended that they didn’t violate the Brady Rule.

The letter was considered hearsay and wouldn’t be admissible in court, they argued.

Cantalamessa said the client who dictated the letter ultimately named Jackson as the killer. To her argument, the letter wouldn’t have helped Jackson’s case.

She also said the client’s letter was received by former Mahoning assistant prosecutor Gina Arnaut, who is now an assistant prosecutor in Trumbull County. Arnaut was one of the eight different criminal prosecutors Cantalamessa estimated to have been involved in Jackson’s four-year-long case. Another was Desmond, she said.

Cantalamessa told Mahoning Matters that letter was never added to Jackson’s case file, so she was unaware of it.

“The state was not lying to this court or trying to hide some smoking gun,” reads a separate filing the following month from Cantalamessa and fellow assistant prosecutor Jennifer McLaughlin, who now heads the office’s criminal division.

“The discovery in this case is voluminous to say the least, and the assistant prosecutors currently assigned to this case believed that all discoverable items were disclosed. There is no evidence of bad faith here on the part of the state. Clearly, the state made an error, but it did not intend to deceive this court or defense counsel.”

Jackson later admitted to killing another woman in 2005 — Tahnee Jackson, 29, whose body was found floating in a creek near Erie Street and Earle Avenue —according to Vindicator archives.

Jackson took a plea bargain and his death sentence was ultimately dismissed. He is currently serving two life sentences without the opportunity for parole.

“Ultimately, he’s still sitting in prison,” Cantalamessa told Mahoning Matters last week. “Justice is still done.”

2006 | State v. Darrin Moore

Darrin Moore was accused in September 2003 of robbing and sexually assaulting a woman in a Boardman parking lot before stealing her car. He was 17 at the time.

After Moore turned 18 — and after he had racked up other unrelated violent felonies — prosecutors in March 2004 offered to dismiss all but his most serious charges related to the 2003 carjacking, leaving counts of aggravated robbery, kidnapping and gross sexual imposition. In exchange, Moore agreed to have his juvenile court case bound over to the county Common Pleas Court’s general division.

But county prosecutors later presented the charges they previously agreed to dismiss to the grand jury, which handed up an indictment against Moore. They argued the agreement was set at the juvenile court level and was only meant to apply to Moore’s juvenile court case.

Former assistant Mahoning County prosecutor Dawn Cantalamessa said she “sat second-chair” at the trial and was not involved in the agreement that defense attorneys used to argue Moore got an unfair deal. Rather, it was set by then-juvenile court prosecutor Anissa Modarelli, nee Jones.

None of the records provided to Mahoning Matters by the prosecutor’s office suggested Cantalamessa was involved in that agreement. The office noted some of Moore’s case files were redacted, including material considered to be “attorney work product,” which would be ineligible for release under the state’s Open Records Act.

During a 2006 hearing on that agreement, a prosecutor presumed to be Jones — but who is not named in the court filings provided to Mahoning Matters — admitted they did not expect the grand jury to indict on the agreed-upon charges. Nevertheless, the trial court found the grand jury “acted properly” when indicting Moore.

But the appeals court disagreed with that outcome, and cleared Moore’s charges, which included felonious assault, failure to comply with police and receiving stolen property.

“The state’s argument that the agreement was meant only to apply to the proceedings in juvenile court is rather disingenuous,” wrote former appellate Judge Joseph Donofrio in a 2008 decision, with which two other judges concurred. “The assistant juvenile prosecutor agreed to dismiss certain charges. ... The state, through the prosecutor’s office, agreed to dismiss certain charges, but pursued them anyway, and denied Moore the benefit of his bargain.”

Former Seventh District Court of Appeals Judge Joseph Donofrio Source: Mahoning County Prosecutor’s Office

After the case was handed back down, Moore pleaded guilty to a charge of aggravated burglary and complicity relating to the sexual assault, the latter of which had been lessened from a charge of gross sexual imposition.

About that time, Moore was also convicted on an unrelated charge of aggravated murder during his juvenile crime spree.

His total sentence was 59 years to life. He’ll be eligible for parole in 2062, at 75 years old. He was also made to register as a low-level sex offender.

2007 | State v. Carl Chaney

An appeals court reversed Carl Chaney’s convictions on four counts of rape, after ruling that former assistant Mahoning County prosecutor Dawn Cantalamessa violated Chaney’s constitutional right to due process by suggesting to a jury that his refusal to speak to police after his arrest should cast doubt on his trial testimony.

Chaney in June 2007 faced multiple charges including rape, kidnapping and aggravated burglary involving his girlfriend. But after he was arrested at a Youngstown bar, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and declined to answer officers’ questions, according to a city police report.

However, when Chaney testified during trial in May 2008, during cross examination, Cantalemessa asked him, “Now, you would agree with me that this is the first time you ever made a statement about this, is that right?” court transcripts show.

Chaney replied “Yes’‘ and one of his attorneys objected to the question. After a sidebar between judge and attorneys, Cantalamessa rephrased the question slightly: “So you would agree with me this is the first time you ever talked about this?”

“You mean out in public, yes,” Chaney replied.

Later, during closing arguments, Cantalamessa again made vague reference to Chaney’s decision not to talk to police, noting to jurors Chaney’s trial testimony was the “first time” he’d spoken about the case — and that he had a year to prepare his testimony.

Defense attorneys objected multiple times but were overruled, transcripts show.

The Seventh District Court of Appeals on March 25, 2010, reversed Chaney’s convictions, ruling Cantalamessa’s “improper references to Chaney’s post-arrest silence violated Chaney’s constitutional rights,” reads the opinion written by then-Judge Mary DeGenaro. Two of the other three judges agreed.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the state’s use of a defendant’s post-arrest, post-Miranda silence as a means of impeaching the defendant’s testimony at trial violates the defendant’s right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment,” the opinion reads. “Courts look upon any comment by a prosecutor on the post-arrest silence of a defendant with extreme disfavor because they raise an inference of guilt from the defendant’s decision to remain silent.”

Former Seventh District Court of Appeals Judge Mary DeGenaro Source: Mahoning County Prosecutor’s Office

Cantalamessa told Mahoning Matters she couldn’t remember the specific line of questioning but recalled the trial court sided with her when it overruled the defense’s objections, which made it “fair game” at trial.

Cantalamessa said prosecutors should be “careful” with phrasing at trial, since the burden of proof is on prosecutors to prove a defendant is guilty, rather than on defendants, to prove they’re innocent.

Chaney’s trial jury in 2008 acquitted him on three of his seven counts of rape, as well as his charges of kidnapping and aggravated burglary.

But upon retrial in 2011, Chaney pleaded guilty to four counts of rape and was sentenced to three years in prison. Since he had been incarcerated for nearly four years by that point, that entire sentence was credited.

2007 | State v. Tony G. Brown

Defense attorneys for Tony G. Brown, accused in 2007 of raping his girlfriend’s young daughter multiple times, said prosecutors knew the alleged victim had recanted her statement but they “hid” it for more than a year.

Court records show former assistant Mahoning County prosecutor Dawn Cantalamessa was the correspondent for all communication about the case, though several others were involved. But she told Mahoning Matters last week she was in the background of this case, and that the alleged victim had recanted her claims long before she took the lead.

Early in the investigation, the girl’s mother told authorities she didn’t believe the assault happened, and said the girl had a history of behavioral issues and was a “compulsive liar.”

Records show prosecutors had already drawn up a plea agreement for Brown, in which he’d plead to a charge of attempted rape and get eight years in prison. That document, as provided by the prosecutor’s office, was undated.

But in early 2008, the girl admitted she made it all up when speaking to two prosecutors: Natasha Frenchko, who now works with the AG’s office in Trumbull County; and Meghan Brundege, who is now the office’s juvenile court prosecutor. Though defense attorneys in 2007 started making requests to receive all exculpatory evidence — meaning evidence that could favor the defendant — they claimed they didn’t learn that the girl had recanted until days before trial.

“During this meeting [the alleged victim] stated that [Brown] did not do it, that nothing happened, and that she had previously lied when she said he raped her,” reads a supplemental discovery filing from June 2009 provided by the prosecutor’s office. “[The alleged victim] further stated that she lied because she was mad at her mom because her mom would not let her see her dad. [The alleged victim] informed prosecutors that a friend at school ... told her that this is how you get adults in trouble if you are mad at them.”

Frenchko contacted Mahoning Matters by phone Tuesday to clarify that she was not assigned to the Brown case and therefore not responsible for disclosing evidence to defense attorneys.

Frenchko said she sat in on that early 2008 meeting with the alleged victim to assist Brundege. She said she similarly attended a June 2009 meeting between the alleged victim and former assistant Mahoning County prosecutor Gabriel Wildman — now an assistant prosecutor in Trumbull County — in which the girl reconfirmed that Brown “did not do it,” according to that June 2009 filing.

While speaking to Mahoning Matters Tuesday, Frenchko furnished records indicating Brown’s attorney Damian Billak of Canfield later filed a grievance with the Ohio Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Counsel, alleging that she withheld that evidence.

“Apparently, three separate attorneys were present during the interviews [with the alleged victim], but you have only filed a grievance against Ms. Frenchko,” wrote Heather Hissom, assistant disciplinary counsel, in January 2011, more than a year after Brown’s case had been resolved.

“Although we do not condone prosecutors withholding discoverable information, which a change in the victim’s story clearly is, it appears that all of the prosecutors involved believed that you were already aware of the information and that they did not need to forward it to you,” Hissom continued. “Further, Ms. Frenchko was not the attorney of record on this matter and not responsible for providing you with discovery responses on this case.”

The Office of Disciplinary Counsel dismissed Billak’s complaint, after finding “no ethical violations or improprieties” on Frenchko’s part, adding “we do not expect to see such a grievance against her in our office again.”

After the discovery issue arose in June 2009, Brown’s attorneys had the girl and her mother sign sworn affidavits stating the accusations were false.

The court noted a violation of the Brady Rule days later, ordered the prosecutor’s office to turn over all other evidence favorable to the defense and pushed back Brown’s trial date.

Some of the records from Brown’s case file furnished to Mahoning Matters by the prosecutor’s office appear incomplete, and are missing pages.

One partially provided motion from prosecutors, which opposed the defense’s motion to dismiss the case, argues that Brown’s attorneys attempted to “blackmail” prosecutors into dropping the charges by threatening criminal charges or ethical sanctions against the prosecutor’s office for alleged misconduct.

Former assistant Mahoning County prosecutors Gabriel Wildman and Natasha Frenchko Source: Mahoning County Prosecutor’s Office

In another incomplete and undated court transcript, Brown’s attorney Billak said some attorneys in the prosecutor’s office had developed a pattern of evidentiary “embarrassments.”

“The pattern of abuse is what brought us back here today again, in this case and others, but particularly in this case,” Billak said, according to transcripts of a hearing before Judge John Durkin, who oversaw Brown’s case.

Billak said attorneys met multiple times with the girl and her mother and cited the girl’s history of behavioral issues, including being a “compulsive liar,” as the girl’s mother had explained to prosecutors in early 2008.

“Now that she’s been in counseling, she’s doing better and is telling the truth. … None of that was ever provided to us,” he continued. “It’s frightening to think that without any other evidence, no DNA, no medical evidence, the medical findings that are not even conclusive, that there is no evidence that any sexual contact or conduct happened. The fact that the state of Ohio would attempt to proceed to a trial with simply a recantation of a now 11-year-old girl is frightening to me and it should be to everybody.”

In response, Judge Durkin said in that undated transcript:

“I am not necessarily addressing counsel sitting before me, but it is alarming how many cases come through the prosecutor’s office where there is clearly Brady material and an attitude that verges on the cavalier where that material or exculpatory evidence is not disclosed or disclosed at a late date and, again, a sentiment that ‘it’s no big deal.’

“To me, the role of a prosecutor is not to garner a conviction at any and all cost, it is to ensure that justice is done. And sometimes that might mean dismissing a case.”

Mahoning County Common Pleas Judge John Durkin Source: Mahoning County Common Pleas Court Reporter’s Office

The following August, the girl’s mother became “uncooperative” with prosecutors and suggested the girl “has previously made other allegations of sexual assault,” according to a filing by prosecutors. Later that month, prosecutors asked the court to allow the girl to be put on the witness stand and testify to the truth of the incident, citing the detail and consistency with which she previously described the alleged sexual assaults to authorities.

Though prosecutors argued the girl had only “recently” recanted her statement, Billak countered that was “blatantly false.”

“[The alleged victim] recanted her allegations the better part of two years ago. The state simply hid the recantation,” he wrote.

The judge ultimately denied the motion to call the girl as a witness at Brown’s trial.

A jury acquitted Brown in October 2009.

2018 | State v. Albert Byrd

Defense attorneys for Albert D. Byrd IV successfully argued that they were “ambushed” during Byrd’s November 2018 murder trial.

A woman who was an alleged eyewitness to the August 2018 altercation in which Byrd was accused of fatally stabbing Jermaine Donlow Jr. offered few details to Youngstown police officers when they first interviewed her. But she gave a more detailed account during her trial testimony, offering details that defense attorneys said prosecutors did not share with them beforehand, breaking with criminal trial procedure.

According to evidentiary reports and testimony provided by the prosecutor’s office, Byrd, then 24, was visiting with Louanne Johnson at her Tyrell Avenue apartment and began fighting with Donlow just outside the apartment. Johnson, Donlow’s former girlfriend, claimed she was being harassed by Donlow and that Byrd had armed himself with a knife before confronting Donlow.

Their melee spilled back into Johnson’s apartment, and Johnson fled. She testified at trial that Byrd later exited the apartment with blood on his clothes and told her he had stabbed Donlow, according to Vindicator archives. Byrd’s attorneys claimed he acted in self-defense.

A woman who lived in the apartment neighboring Johnson told Youngstown police she witnessed the fight, but that she could only see the vague shapes of two people through the peephole in her front door, and that she couldn’t identify them.

But at trial, that neighbor expanded her testimony, instead saying there were actually three people fighting. She also identified the victim Donlow as being on the ground beneath the two others, who were beating him.

Though Johnson testified she believed Donlow had a gun and was preparing to draw it during the fight, her neighbor’s testimony suggested Byrd was the one with the gun. The neighbor said she heard Byrd verbally threaten to shoot Donlow. It was another element of the woman’s account that she didn’t initially share with police and which wasn’t disclosed to Byrd’s defense before trial.

“It was a total surprise to me as well,” former assistant Mahoning County prosecutor Dawn Cantalamessa told the court, according to a transcript. “No one here knew that she was going to be able to ID him, but she obviously could. And so we did it.”

Former assistant Mahoning County prosecutor Dawn Cantalamessa Source: Mahoning County Court Reporter’s Office

Cantalamessa last week told Mahoning Matters she discussed the facts of the neighbor’s account with her for the first time just before trial. Since it was the first time Cantalamessa heard the woman’s account, she said she was unaware that it differed from what she initially told police.

The court later determined that prosecutors did know ahead of time that the neighbor would give a more detailed account on the witness stand. Also, a Youngstown detective testified during trial that he had previously characterized the neighbor as “a liar.”

Byrd’s attorney Anthony Meranto of Boardman argued that it was a “trial by ambush.”

“I want [the neighbor] examined and maybe investigated by the detectives of YPD because something is really rotten here,” Meranto told the court. “This young man’s not supposed to be facing that kind of fire. You want to do it fair? I’m all fair with everybody in this town. This is ridiculous. I’ve never had this experience before since the days of Paul Brown when there were three mistrials because all the sudden we’re finding new evidence during every trial.

“This is ridiculous. It’s blatant. And they need to be sanctioned for it right now, or we need to start it all over.”

Meranto argued he could have prepared Byrd’s defense differently had he known in advance that the neighbor would testify three people were involved in the fight, or that she heard Byrd threaten to shoot Donlow.

“One fact can change an entire strategy of a defense. And for that matter, a prosecution,” Judge Anthony D’Apolito told the attorneys, according to a transcript.

Judge D’Apolito ordered the neighbor’s testimony be stricken from the record and instructed Byrd’s jury to disregard her statements.

Byrd was ultimately acquitted.

“He was found ‘not guilty.’ What are we going to do?” Cantalamessa said last week, when asked for her thoughts on the outcome. “He argued self defense and he prevailed. Whether or not [the neighbor’s] testimony would have helped or hurt, we have no idea.

“We let the jury decide it.”

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.

This story was originally published December 14, 2021 12:47 AM.

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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