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Thanking UC's Ohio Innocence Project for freedom

by Deborah Rieselman

The national Innocence Project works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted through post-conviction DNA testing and evidence that can conclusively prove innocence. The Ohio Innocence Project, based at the University of Cincinnati's College of Law, was founded in 2003, at a time that Ohio statistically had one of the largest prison populations without access to an Innocence Project..

As many as 20 students work full time on the project over the summer, screening hundreds of requests from prisoners, then selecting approximately six cases for complete investigation based upon the possibility of introducing new evidence to exonerate the prisoners, such as DNA testing, new witnesses or digital enhancement of old video films. During the school year, work continues on a part-time basis for class credit under the direction of Mark Godsey, OIP director, the Daniel and Judith Carmichael Professor of Law and a former federal prosecutor.

Funded entirely through private donations, the project provides the kind of legal experience unmatched in the classroom or on most jobs available to law students. Because the service is free, most clients are "poor, forgotten and have used up all legal avenues for relief," Godsey says.

UC students had their first victory in 2005 when Gary Reece walked away from prison after serving 25 years of a 75-year sentence for the rape and attempted murder of a woman in his apartment building.

In 2007, the Ohio Innocence Project was subject matter for two TV-series pilot episodes. "Court TV" featured a UC case in debuting a new series called "Justice Delayed." And a new A&E network series called "Innocence Files" featured three UC students and their work developing the ongoing case of inmate Glenn Tinney.

In April 2010, law students' successful work through the Innocence Project paved the way for groundbreaking reform in wrongful convictions when Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland signed into law Senate Bill 77, which sets statewide standards for retaining biological evidence, taking DNA in felony arrests and establishing new procedures for police lineups.

The list below, in alphabetical order, represents everyone whom the OIP helped to get released as of July 1, 20013. The date following the name is the date they greeted freedom. Click on any highlighted name to read more.

List of wrongfully convicted freed by Ohio Innocence Project

No. 1 — Gary Reece (2005)

After 25 years behind bars and five failed parole requests, an Amelia, Ohio, man received parole in February 2005 thanks in part to UC law students who intervened through the Ohio Innocence Project. Gary Reece had 50 years remaining on his sentence for rape and attempted murder, a conviction based almost entirely upon the testimony of a woman who claimed he had attacked her.

One and a half year's worth of student research introduced significant new evidence to a parole hearing, including the facts that no forensic evidence linked Reece to the crime, Reece had passed lie-detector tests that the woman repeatedly failed, the woman had a history of self-mutilation practices consistent with the injuries she reported following the alleged attack and her former boyfriend filed an affidavit casting doubt on her truthfulness. Several of the students gathered to greet Reece at his release.

Update: Gary Reece died of cancer in July 2010, after being wrongfully jailed for 25 years and being free for 6.

No. 2 — Clarence Elkins (2005)

Elkins was convicted of the the brutal rape and murder of his mother-in-law, as well as the beating and rape of his 6-year-old niece, even though no physical evidence had existed. Five years later, DNA tests confirmed that another prisoner, who was living near the victims at the time, had been in contact with both victims. After Ohio attorney general Jim Petro joined OIP in insisting that a new trial be granted, his conviction was overturned. Elkins, who had served seven and a half years in prison, became the OIP's first exoneration. (Read his full story here.)

No. 3 — Christopher Bennett (2006)

In 2002, Christopher Bennett was sentenced to a nine-year prison term for aggravated vehicular homicide in the death of his best friend Ronald Young after the van in which they were riding crashed. The next year, students of the the brand new Ohio Innocence Project successfully located the van six days before the impound lot was to destroy it and collected DNA samples, showing that Bennett was not the driver. They also obtained new corroborating witness testimony and requested a new trial. The court denied the petition.

In 2006, that DNA ultimately led the Court of Appeals to remand Bennett’s case back to the trial court with instructions to reverse the conviction. Bennett’s case was the first one the OIP ever presented in court, and he was the second prisoner to gain release from prison thanks to the students' efforts. (Read his full story here.)

No. 4 — Bruce Paul (2008)

Convicted in '93, Paul was released after serving more than 14 years in prison, having maintained his innocence the entire time.

No. 5 — Robert McClendon (2008)

Imprisoned in 1990 for raping a 10-year-old girl, Robert McClendon gained his freedom 18 years later, in 2008, after UC law students convinced the court to grant a new DNA test. Originally, McClendon had been convicted based on the identification by the victim and a semen stain found on the victim's underwear. Later, the Ohio Innocence Project had DNA Diagnostics Center perform advanced DNA testing on the underwear, which excluded McClendon from the crime.
• See a video with McClendon and the OIP.
• See a 17-minute BET documentary on McClendon.

No. 6 — Joseph Fears (2009)

Another wrongfully convicted Ohio prisoner went free in March thanks to the Ohio Innocence Project, which is based at UC. After serving time for a 1983 rape committed in Columbus, Ohio, Joseph Fears Jr., 61, went free in March 2009, after serving 25 years, when student research encouraged a county prosecutor to search for evidence eligible for DNA testing. Results proved another felon committed the crime. (Scroll down to "The Hustler" to see his story.)

No. 7 — Nancy Smith (2009)

After serving 15 years for children molestation, Nancy Smith, a Head Start bus driver, was exonerated when a Loraine County Common Pleas Court judge granted a new trial, then acquitted her in 2009. OIP faculty and students say that her conviction was based upon the testimony of very young children who had been coached by their parents and that the children’s stories both contradicted each other and contained inaccuracies. In the end, the children and their parents received millions of dollars in settlements.

But in January 2009, the Ohio Supreme Court reinstated the original conviction, ruling that Judge James Burge lacked the authority to hold a new sentencing entry and issue an acquittal. In April 2011, the OIP filed a petition with Gov. John Kasich asking him for clemency because the Supreme Court did not overturn the finding that she was not guilty. (Read more here.)

No. 8 — Willie Knighten Jr. (2009)

Willie Knighten served 12 years for a murder he did not commit when the judge, who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, confessed to the parole board that he had been mistaken in finding Knighten guilty of killing an innocent bystander at a convenience-store shootout.

Five months alter the incident occurred, an anonymous tip led police to arrest Knighten. Two witnesses who had originally told police they did know the shooter changed their minds and fingered Knighten, even though other evidence had excluded him. They later recanted. In the end, OIP helped Knighten petition Ohio's governor for an executive clemency. (See video of his reunion with his family.)

No. 9 — Raymond Towler (2010)

After nearly three decades imprisoned up for a crime he did not commit, 52-year-old Raymond Towler was released in May 2010. At the time, the Cleveland man was the longest serving wrongfully incarcerated inmate to be released in Ohio history and one of the longest in United States history.

In 1981, an armed gunman had raped an 11-year-old girl in a Cleveland park and forced her cousin to watch. A few weeks later, a park ranger stopped the 24-year-old Towler for a traffic violation and arrested him because he believed Towler resembled a rape-suspect drawing. After the victim and witnesses identified him from a photo array, he received a life sentence for rape, assault and kidnapping.

Later, when DNA testing conclusively proved that Towler was not the perpetrator, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Eileen Gallagher released him with a tear-choked voice. "She got very emotional at the end," says Brian Howe, JD ’10, who worked on the case as a student. "The judge read that old Irish prayer about 'May the road rise up to meet you,' and then she made an eloquent speech."

UC law students Eric Gooding, Matt Katz and Chris Brown also worked on the case with Professor Mark Godsy, Ohio Innocence Project director.


No. 10 — Teddy Moseley (2010)

Teddy Moseley was convicted in 2000 of two counts of aggravated vehicular assault and three counts of involuntary manslaughter when the car he was in spun out of control, crossed the center line and struck a minivan in Scioto County. The jury determined he was driving when the accident occurred, and he was sentenced to 11 years.

After his conviction, five people came forward to indicate they had been at the scene shortly after the accident, and they knew Moseley had been in the backseat. All of them claimed that the police knew of their presence on the scene but failed to contact any of them for a testimony later. In light of the new evidence, Moseley attempted, unsuccessfully, to get a new trial. In 2007, OIP submitted a letter supporting Moseley's request for executive clemency. In December 2010, the governor granted his clemency.

No. 11 — Glenn Tinney (March 2013)

Glenn Tinney is a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who confessed in 1992 to killing a man whom he could not identify and whose death took place in 1988. Already jailed on an unrelated burglary, Tinney was convicted soley upon his confession with no other evidence linking him to Ted White being beaten to death in the Mansfield, Ohio, furniture store he owned.

In 2009, the Ohio Innocence Project filed a motion to withdraw Tinney's plea after local police officers contacted the staff because they believed in his innocence and long suspected another man of the crime. The judge granted the motion to withdraw the plea, but it was appealed. The appeals court sent it back to the Common Pleas Court for an evidentiary hearing, which Judge James DeWeese held fall of 2012.

His Jan. 24, 2013, decision stated: "Mr. Tinney confessed to killing a man he could not identify, for conflicting motives which don’t match the facts, at the wrong time of day, with a weapon that does not match the victim’s injuries, by striking him in the wrong part of his head, and stealing items the victim either still possessed after the attack or probably never possessed.”

A forensic psychologist had testified that Tinney is "severely mentally ill, suffering hallucinations that leave him craving punishment" and had previously tried to commit suicide. The victim's wife and two former Mansfield police investigators were among Tinney's defenders — all of whom agree they do not want to see an innocent man in jail and a guilty man remain free. Tinney was freed on Feb. 8, after more than 20 years in prison. (Read more about the case.)

No. 12 — Walter “Wally” Zimmer (April 2011)

Wally Zimmer served 12 years in prison for a murder based primarily on the testimony of a “snitch” who said he saw Zimmer and another man commit the murder. The Ohio Innocence Project worked on the case for more than five years when DNA testing not only failed to implicate Zimmer, but revealed that the snitch’s DNA was all over the crime scene. Furthermore, the victim’s blood was found on the snitch’s pants.

After the DNA results came in, prosecutors offered to release Zimmer and drop murder charges if he would plead guilty to a theft charge. Zimmer took the deal. His co-defendant, represented by the New York Ohio Innocence Project, was also released.

No. 13 — David Ayers (September 2011)

When David Ayers was freed from the Cuyahoga County jail on Sept. 12, 2011, he had been serving 11 years of a life sentence for aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary and aggravated murder of a disabled 76-year-old woman living at the Cuyahoga County public housing project where he was a security guard. No physical evidence linked the man with prior arrests to the crime, and he always maintained his innocence.

In 2010, the Ohio Innocence Project was instrumental in getting DNA testing done, which excluded Ayers from key evidence at the crime scene. He was freed in 2011. In March 2013, the students were instrumental in getting him one of the largest civil rights awards ever — $13.21 million for his wrongful prosecution and imprisonment.

Ayers claims that two Cleveland police detectives violated his civil rights by coercing and falsifying testimony and withholding evidence that pointed to his innocence. Many people also suspect that his sexual orientation may have had something to do with the police actions because a police report noted, "This male appeared very 'gay' like, but when we asked him if he was gay, he laughed & stated no.... But this male acted very 'gay like … .'" (Read the story of his original conviction.)

No. 14 — Roger “Dean” Gillispie (December 2011)

After serving 20 years in prison for rapes that he had always maintained he did not commit, 46-year-old Roger “Dean” Gillispie walked out of prison into the arms of his mother and father on Dec. 22, 2011. The Ohio Innocence Project worked on this case (its first case) for nine years before a federal judge overturned Gillispie's conviction based upon him not getting a fair trail in 1991. 

No physical evidence had ever connected Gillispie to the crimes, and victims identified him in a photo lineup two years after the crimes occurred. The judge's 2011 decision partially came from the discovery that the prosecution failed to reveal that the original police detectives on the case had eliminated Gillispie as a suspect due to the substantial differences in his appearance and the victims’ description of the perpetrator. (Read his whole story.)

No. 15 — Bryant "Rico" Gaines (2012)

In 2004, Bryant "Rico" Gaines was convicted of the 2003 fatal shooting of Clarence Eugene Bradshaw and sentenced to 15 years to life. The original conviction had been based primarily on one testimony from a man who recanted five years later. When the Ohio Innocence Project became involved in the case, the team realized the coroner’s testimony had proven Gaines didn’t shoot anyone and they found a new witness who saw the shooting up close with no involvement from Bryant — but the witness had previously been too scared to come forward. New evidence was presented in '11 and a new trial was ordered, but the district court of appeals overturned the decision. In 2012, Gaines filed another motion, then accepted a plea deal to a reduced charge in exchange for his immediate freedom. He went free that year, after serving nine years.

No. 16 — Douglas Prade (2013)

On Jan. 29, following nearly 15 years of serving a life sentence for a crime he didn't commit, former Akron police captain Douglas Prade, 66, walked out of the Madison Correctional Institution near Columbus, Ohio. Thanks to long-time efforts of the Ohio Innocence Project, Prade had been exonerated for the murder of his ex-wife, Margo, and deemed innocent. In 1997, he had been convicted of shooting her, but DNA from a bite-mark on her lab coat excluded him when the case recently went back to court.

To keep up his spirits while imprisoned, Prade says he read about 500 books and kept a journal of thousands of pages. On one page, he wrote the names of 20 UC College of Law students who had helped with his case, dating back to the group's founding in 2003.

Prade hopes to keep up this long-term relationship by helping the Innocence Project free others. "I am committed to help them use the 30 years of experience I've had as a police officer and the 15 years of experience as a wrongly convicted person," he said "There are thousands of innocent men and women in prison, and a lot of them don’t have the advantage of having DNA (to aid their cases).” (Read entire story and watch video.)

No. 17 — Dewey Jones (2014)

Having been imprisoned for more than 20 years for a crime swore he did not commit, Dewey Jones, 51, was released in January 2014, thanks to the Ohio Innocence Project, which obtained DNA testing to prove Jones' innocence.

An Akron resident, Jones was sentenced to life imprisonment for killing 71-year-old Neal Rankin, who was shot in the head twice at close range in 1993.

Police working on the case grew suspicious after they “found no signs of forced entry into Rankin's' house, so they focused their investigation on Mr. Rankin’s circle of younger acquaintances,” court documents note. Jones said Rankin was a close family friend whom they visited regularly.

Although no physical evidence linked Jones to the crime, a jailhouse "snitch" was the state’s star witness. The informant claimed he saw Jones at Rankin's house the night of the murder. Jones was sentenced to life imprisonment. Court documents later showed that the informant was released from jail following his testimony.

In April 2012, DNA tests showed that blood on three pieces of evidence — rope used to tie Rankin’s wrists, a knife used to cut the rope and Rankin’s shirt — excluded Jones. In July 2012, Summit County Common Pleas Court granted Jones a new trial. In January 2014, Summit County Judge Mary Margaret Rowland dismissed aggravated murder, aggravated kidnapping, and aggravated robbery charges against Jones. (Watch video and read entire story.)