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Ohio Innocence Project frees 17th person, Dewey Jones

A pair of hands grip jail bars.

by Deborah Rieselman

Twenty years behind bars is an agonizingly long time. Especially if you are serving a life sentence for a murder you did not commit — one that you had no knowledge of until you were arrested.

Surely, the United States’ court system would not lock away a suspect without a single shred of physical evidence, Dewey Jones hopefully thought from his arrest in 1993 to his hearing in 1995. But he was wrong. The state’s star witness, a “jailhouse snitch,” seemed to be all the court needed to seal Jones’ fate.

Despite the seemingly impossible odds of ever being released, Jones maintained his hopefulness that justice would be served one day. And earlier this year, his positive thinking was rewarded. Thanks to the efforts of the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP), housed at the University of Cincinnati, Jones left the Summit County Courthouse in Akron, Ohio, as a free man.

“I knew [this day] would come,” Jones told the Akron ABC channel, NewsNet 5. “I just never thought it would take this long. The truth is the truth, and it always comes out.”

In 1993, police had found 71-year-old Neal Rankin dead in his house — shot twice in the head at close range. Investigators grew suspicious when they “found no signs of forced entry,” court documents noted. “So the investigation focused on Mr. Rankin’s circle of younger acquaintances.”

Jones admitted that Rankin was a close family friend whom the family visited regularly — so regularly that his children called Rankin “grandpa,” he said in a TV interview this year. That made Jones an easy target for the police to focus on.

Next, a neighbor reported seeing someone leave Rankin’s house on the evening of the murder and the neighbor identified Jones, as well as two other people at different times, from photo arrays. That moved Jones to the top of the suspect list.

The clincher came when “a jailhouse informant testified that Mr. Jones had confessed the crime to him,” explained Judge Carla Moore in Ohio Ninth District Court of Appeals documents.
 
At the scene of the crime, blood samples did exist on three pieces of evidence — rope used to tie Rankin’s wrists, a knife used to cut the rope and Rankin’s shirt. Unfortunately the samples were so “very small, degraded, or compromised,” court records stated, that the basic DNA testing was unavailable in the early 1990s.

By 2010, however, more sophisticated DNA testing could analyze 20-year-old blood samples, and Jones felt sure such tests would clear his name. So the OIP got involved, ran the tests and discovered that all three samples excluded Jones. Furthermore, the OIP uncovered alleged police misconduct, according to the OIP website. Photo arrays, audio recordings, police reports and evidence related to the murder weapon “no longer exist,” the defendant’s attorneys told the court, and were assumed to be “either destroyed, discarded or lost.”

To weaken the case further, defense lawyers discovered that the “informant” had gotten out of jail after giving testimony about Jones. Later in 1995, the witness had a three-to-five-year burglary sentence suspended “mainly … because he testified for the state in the Neal Rankin murder case,” defense-attorney documents stated. In July 2000, the witness was killed after a high-speed police chase and shootout following his reported theft of two vehicles.

In July 2012, Summit County Common Pleas Court granted Jones a new trial, with the judge opining that new DNA test results “call into question the state’s entire theory of the case.”

One year later, in July 2013, the Ninth District Court of Appeals in Akron supported Jones’ right to a new trial, despite objections from state prosecutors. The court ruled that “there were reasonable grounds” for the new trial.

In December 2013, Jones was released to his home under the electronic surveillance of an ankle bracelet until a decision was reached on whether or not Summit County prosecutors would retry him. An anonymous donor paid Jones’ $300,000 bond. Jones said he believed the person was a former inmate who had been exonerated of a murder charge.
 
“The Ohio Attorney General’s office subsequently filed a motion requesting the judge to dismiss the charges against Dewey due in part to the state of the evidence and death of witnesses,” says Nancy Petro, Ohio Innocence Project author and advocate. On Jan. 30, 2014, Summit County Judge Mary Margaret Rowland dismissed aggravated murder, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery charges against Jones.

He removed his ankle monitor and walked into the arms of family, including his now-grown children, most of whom were raised by foster families because his wife was unable to care for six children on her own. “I sure would like to know who I did 20 years for,” he sighed.

NOTES

  • 17th victory — Jones is the 17th  person freed by OIP efforts.
  • 300 years —  Altogether, OIP clients have spent nearly 300 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
  • UC law students — UC students who worked on this case over the years include: Shabby Allen, Nicole Billec, Amanda Bleiler, Scott Brenner, Chris Brown, Eric Gooding, Brian Howe, Julie Kathman, Matt Katz, Eric Kmetz, Ryan McGraw, Sarvani Prasad, Amanda Rieger, Stacey Skuza and Bryant Strayer.

LINKS

posted summer 2014

Watch Dewey Jones' interview on Akron's ABC channel, NewsNet 5,
soon after the judge let him go free on Jan. 30, 2014.