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March 18, 2021

By Capital University Law School

Criminal Law Alums Forging Changes in Justice System

Capital University Law School alumni are continuing to advance the school’s reputation as one of the top criminal law programs in the country.

PreLaw Magazine recently ranked CapLaw as one of the elite programs. Judging by the advancements our alumni are making in the trenches, it’s no surprise that they share an educational background that set them on the right course.

Samuel H. Shamansky, L’85, successfully defended a client in a recent case that made international news. The defendant, Peter Romans, was arrested in 2019 on murder and arson charges for a 2008 fire that killed his wife and two children in rural Madison County, Ohio.

Shamansky, a well-known criminal defense attorney, has handled numerous high-profile cases, but the Romans case was only the second time he had tried one with death-penalty specifications. Shamansky advised his client to request a three-judge panel to hear the case rather than a jury.

“It was the first time I’ve ever done it in my life,” Shamansky says of the decision, adding that it was the right call to make. He says the case rested on technical and scientific testimony based on Romans’ insistence that the fire was caused by a faulty part in his 2001 Ford Expedition. “Twelve Madison County citizens would have been more susceptible to emotion.”

He says the usual protocol would have been to ask for a trial by jury. “I don’t take a typical approach to anything if it can be avoided,” Shamansky says. “We’ve got a guy’s life hanging in the balance. You have to keep an open mind and be collaborative. My client had complete faith in the justice system.”

Shamansky says experience is one of the best teachers. “As a young lawyer, I took every opportunity to see ace trial lawyers in action,” he says. He advises law students to take part in the legal clinic “and roll up your sleeves and handle every case you can. Good trial skills transcend specialized areas. Once you have a good skillset, you can try any case.”

Shamansky acknowledges that there is a craft to trying cases, which he laments as becoming “more and more obscured.” He says there is an overburdened criminal justice system and “a shortage of people who want to do this work.”

Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein, L’04, agrees there is “a general recognition that the criminal justice system is broken.” His office has been investigating ways to make changes on the non-violent side. “As the city attorney, I am the chief prosecutor for all misdemeanor crimes that happen in the City of Columbus.”

Since his election in 2017, Klein has been seeking to improve inequities. “We no longer prosecute misdemeanor marijuana charges,” he says, “We’ve eliminated cash bail for non-violent misdemeanors. We’ve worked with the police chief to issue summons over arrests for non-violent misdemeanors.”

Klein’s office collaborated with a third-party healthcare organization to establish a theft diversion program that’s the first of its kind and intended to identify and treat root causes of non-violent misdemeanors. For example, if the reason that someone steals something is because they have food insecurity, the program would direct the offender to visit a food pantry.

“We fix the reason that people commit crimes to make our community safer,” Klein says. Of the 77 people who have participated in the past 14 months, only six were repeat offenders.

Likewise, defense attorneys advocate for the use of jail sanctions “as a last resort rather than a first resort,” says David Pelletier, L’18, an attorney working for the Franklin County Public Defender’s Office. He cited the Franklin County Municipal Court system’s numerous specialty dockets that connect offenders to resources.

The Franklin County specialty dockets, which were sanctioned by the Ohio Supreme Court in 2001, provide resources for people dealing with drug addictions and/or mental health issues; military and veterans who have committed misdemeanor crimes due to extenuating circumstances; and victims of human trafficking.

The specialty dockets “address the evils that beset society,” Pelletier says. “On the defense side, we’re always looking for good opportunities for what’s in the best interest of our clients. If they are looking for help, the specialty dockets are great resources.”

At the end of the two-year probation period, with the recommendation of the prosecuting attorney and if the defendant has successfully completed the program, their pleas and convictions are vacated.