November 1, 2014

Medina
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Man called liar by assistant prosecutor gets new trial

MEDINA — The 9th District Court of Appeals has ordered a new trial for a 50-year-old man convicted last year of asking someone to set a building on fire.

The appellate judges ruled Vincent E. Labriola, of Copley Township, wasn’t given a fair trial in February 2012 because Medina County Assistant Prosecutor Matt Razavi repeatedly told jurors that Labriola was a liar during closing arguments, according to records.

“Even after being directed by the trial court to rephrase, the assistant prosecutor only more emphatically called Labriola a liar,” the judges wrote in a June 24 decision. “In fact, the crux of the state’s argument was that Labriola lied under oath, while the State’s witnesses told the truth.

“This court concludes that the assistant prosecutor’s repeated comments about Labriola’s untruthfulness crossed the line into impropriety,” they wrote.

Labriola’s conviction was overturned and sent back to common pleas court.

County Prosecutor Dean Holman said he “respectfully disagrees with the court’s judgment” and has asked the court to reconsider the ruling.

He contended that the 9th District Court of Appeals previously ruled that it was acceptable to call a witness a liar during closing arguments if the evidence supported it.

“It was supported here,” Holman said. “Mr. Razavi’s comments were appropriate based on previous rulings by the court of appeals.”

If the decision isn’t reversed, Holman said he would take the case to the Ohio Supreme Court.

“If that fails, we’ll have no choice but to retry the case,” Holman said.

Labriola was charged with complicity to commit arson, a fourth-degree felony punishable by up to 1ᄑ years in prison. He was sentenced March 20, 2012, to six months of home arrest, three years probation and 24 hours of community service.

He was accused of soliciting his employee, Steven Combs, 48, of Cleveland, to set fire to an outbuilding in Montville Township owned by a friend.

Labriola didn’t deny Combs set the barn ablaze in May 2012, according to court records, but said he didn’t ask Combs to do it.

Combs was sentenced to six months in prison after pleading guilty in October 2011 to arson, a fourth-degree felony. Combs later was convicted of aggravated murder in an unrelated case out of Cuyahoga County and was sentenced to life in prison.

The night of the fire, Montville Township police stopped a Volkswagen Jetta driven by Combs. Police reported they found lighters, matches and rubber gloves in the vehicle, as well as beer cans matching the brand found at the fire scene.

Combs was arrested and charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated.

Police obtained a warrant to search Combs’ cell phone and reported they found text messages reading “Let there be light” and “done deal” that were sent to Labriola’s cell phone number.

At the trial, police said Labriola told at least three people, including the building’s owner, that he asked Combs to set the fire.

The owner, Chad Barco, said at trial that the burned building was in poor condition. He said Labriola told him he got Combs to burn it down “as a favor” to Barco.

Barco said he didn’t know about Labriola’s plan and found out only after it happened.

Conviction upheld

The same day the court of appeals remanded Labriola’s case, it upheld the conviction of a 48-year-old Brunswick man sentenced in March 2009 to 55 years to life in prison on 69 charges involving sexual crimes against at least three children younger than 13.

Tibor C. Sebestyen, formerly of Paul Drive, pleaded guilty in January 2009 to 21 counts of rape — 17 against children under age 13 — which are first-degree felonies. He also was convicted of gross sexual imposition, a third-degree felony, and 47 counts of pandering obscenity involving a minor, second-degree felonies.

Sebestyen fell under police suspicion in 2008 when a girl reported abuse to a hospital.

Police reported they searched his home, where he lived with his wife and two children, and found more than 7,000 images of child pornography and 1,000 CDs with child pornography films.

In his appeal, Sebestyen said he wasn’t warned about the consequences of pleading guilty and wasn’t aware of what the prosecutor would have to prove to convict him of rape.

The appeals court rejected that argument and affirmed the conviction and sentencing.

Contact reporter Nick Glunt at (330) 721-4048 or nglunt@medina-gazette.com.