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Wrongfully imprisoned man thanks UC students for freedom

Ohio attorney general commends UC-based Ohio Innocence Project

by Deborah Rieselman
February 2006

For seven and a half years, Clarence Elkins sat behind bars for a horrendous crime he knew he didn't commit -- the brutal rape and murder of his mother-in-law, as well as the beating and rape of his 6-year-old niece. At home, his wife, spurned by her family, never gave up on him. But she nearly gave up on the American justice system, until University of Cincinnati students intervened.

On Dec. 15, Elkins walked down the long corridor of Mansfield Correctional Institution, with various security doors slamming shut behind him -- this time, without guards, dressed in civilian clothes, walking toward the expectant faces of those who had fought tirelessly for his release, including his wife and Mark Godsey, director of the UC-based Ohio Innocence Project. Thanks to Godsey and UC students, Clarence Elkins was a free man, the Ohio Innocence Project's first exoneration.

On Feb. 14, Elkins and his wife, Melinda, thanked the 20 law students who had worked on the case for two years and the whole UC community in person. "I'm not much on words," Elkins told a packed lecture hall at the College of Law, "but I speak from the heart. I just want to say thanks to everyone here.

"I want to encourage you all to keep up what you're doing. You change people's lives. You did mine."

Ohio attorney general Jim Petro and chief deputy attorney general Jim Canepa also spoke at the event because it was to their office that the UC students turned when the court system repeatedly refused to give Elkins another trial regardless of new DNA evidence that they had been presenting. Godsey said Petro's intervention was crucial to the victory.

College of Law Dean Louis Bilionis said such intervention is "unheard of." He called it a "testament to the work the Ohio Innocence Project does and the forthrightness of the Attorney General's Office."

Petro returned the compliment, saying, "Our role was minimal. The heavy lifting had been done. We just sifted through the records to be sure where we were heading."

In June '98, Elkins' mother-in-law had been beaten, raped and strangled in the dark. His 6-year-old niece, who had been spending the night with her grandmother, was also beaten and raped, then left for dead. When the child regained consciousness around 7 a.m., she ran to a neighbor's house for help. The female neighbor made the blood-covered child wait on the porch for nearly 10 minutes, according to testimony, before driving her home.

No one questioned why the woman left the girl on the porch so long. Or why she failed to call an ambulance when she saw that the child had been brutalized. Or why she didn't call the police when the sobbing girl told of the murder. Somehow those questions got lost in piles of more immediate matters, Melinda said, and they did not resurface until much later.

When the police came for Elkins, they were shocked. He had an alibi: He and Melinda had been together, 45 minutes away at the time.

In the end, no evidence linked him to the crime. No fingerprints. No blood. Nothing, except the conflicting confessions of a traumatized child who said he had been there.

The niece later recanted, and Melinda thought they would get a new trial. But it was denied.

Melinda grew obsessed with trying to find the real murderer and to raise money for legal expenses and DNA testing. She was gaining no ground when the Ohio Innocence Project decided to intervene in the spring of '04.

Later that year, optimism began to grow when DNA testing showed no connection between Elkins and a swab from the rape kit, hair and skin cells from underneath the deceased's fingernails or a hair found in the child's clothes. The Innocence Project made a motion for a new trial. It was denied.

In the meantime, something had dawned on Melinda -- how fishy the neighbor's response to her niece had been. Investigating the neighbor further revealed that, at the time of the crime, she had been living with someone by the name of Earl Mann. At the time of this discovery, Mann was serving time in the same prison as Elkins … for raping three girls in '02.

The goal abruptly focused on finding a way to get a DNA sample from Mann. Elkins knew it was up to him, but refused to do anything too obvious. "I didn't want to point any fingers like those that had been pointed at me," he told the UC crowd.

The life-changing moment came when Elkins saw Mann deposit a cigarette butt, all alone, and walk a way. Elkins carefully and nervously slipped the butt into a clean tissue he had, then placed it inside his heavy Strong's Bible Concordance.

He waited nearly two weeks to nab a new Ziploc baggie, needed to prevent contamination of the butt in the mail, but once he did, he mailed it to his attorney. Even that was a risk, he said, because he was probably breaking prison rules to do so.

Yet hopes were confirmed. The saliva on the butt matched the unidentified DNA found on both victims.

Melinda then began to suspect that Mann's girlfriend had done some serious coaching in the car to get the panicked little girl to place her uncle at the scene. Furthermore, this same girlfriend was the witness who claimed on the stand that the child had named Uncle Clarence as the perpetrator, Mark Godsey added.

Earlier in 2004, the attorney general's office had joined the Ohio Innocence Project in requesting a new trial for Elkins after reviewing DNA tests and confirming that the results had excluded Elkins from the site. Although that motion had been denied, Petro jumped into action now that new DNA linked another prisoner to both victims. "Our whole staff went through the files and everyone agreed, 'There's an injustice here,'" he said.

He sent his opinion to the Summit County Prosecutor's Office and tried several times to discuss the case with her, he said. She wasn't interested, he added, so he changed his approach: He held a press conference.

"We owe it to Mr. Elkins to move swiftly in granting him his freedom," his press release stated on Dec. 9, 2005. "We owe it to the victims to ensure that the right suspect, Earl Mann, is prosecuted for committing the crimes."

Petro admitted it was a radical thing for the state's top law enforcement official to do, basically "butting heads" with one of the prosecutors he would normally be supporting. "I didn't understand the short-sightedness of the county prosecutor," he said, "so I decided to go public."

He also asked that Elkins be released from his life sentence in time for Christmas. The prosecutor and judge took his suggestions more seriously this time. Elkins' became a free man on Dec. 15.

Everyone agrees that through all the obstacles that blocked justice being served, Elkins remained positive. "When we lost a motion for a new trial, we were really devastated and angry over that decision," noted law student Un Kyong Ho. But when we went to see Clarence in prison, he walked in with a huge smile. That speaks to his character and dignity."

Godsey recalled making the phone call to break that news to him earlier. "I remember he said, 'It's OK. It'll work out.' I couldn't believe it. He's so upbeat."

Elkins shrugged off the accolades and said, "I just kept believing one day I'd get my life back. My spirituality, my faith is what got me through this.

"And my family," said the father of two boys. "I had too much to throw away."

He and Melinda also admit that they are only now beginning to deal with the grief over losing her mother, Judith Johnson. There was no time to mourn properly before, Melinda confessed.

Similarly, Elkins has had a delayed reaction to being wrongfully imprisoned. "While incarcerated, I didn't have time to be angry. I'm only starting to feel a little bit of it now. At the same time, I'm a forgiving person and willing to move on," he said quietly.

After 30 years as an attorney, Petro confided, "I do believe the system works well, but it is imperfect. This reminds us to never be so convinced otherwise."

An obvious question was raised by Gary Reece, whom UC students got released from prison by introducing new evidence through the Ohio Innocence Project in 2004, after he served 25 years of a 75-year conviction. "We understand how mistakes can be made," Reece said from the audience, "but when new evidence raises serious questions, why does no one go 'oops'?"

"Prosecutors are used to being right," Godsey explained. "It's hard for them to look at the facts objectively later. It's almost an inherent conflict of interest when they've tried the case to begin with."

And that situation is what makes working with "these skilled and remarkable students" so critical, said assistant attorney general Jim Canepa. "It's absolutely intriguing how these law students so immerse themselves in these cases, far more than lawyers in practice.

"For them, they have no bias, no baggage, no paying clients. They can look at things from a different angle than the lawyer does, through untainted lenses.

"They're not desensitized to the effects of being a lawyer yet. They add so much value. It's not just a matter of enforcing the law for them, but fighting for justice. The fight for justice is the higher ideal."

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

Related articles
Read more about the Innocence Project and details on released prisoners.

UC Innocence Project website, videos