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Friday, December 16, 2005

Law Students Free Convict

Cincinnati Enquirer

Friday, December 16, 2005
UC students free man doing life
Murder conviction tossed after he served 7½ years

By Sharon Coolidge
Enquirer staff writer

An Akron man was freed from a life prison term on rape and murder convictions Thursday, the first Ohio exoneration based on work by the University of Cincinnati-based Ohio Innocence Project.

After 7½ years behind bars at Mansfield Correctional Institution, Clarence Elkins walked out of his prison cell into the arms of his wife, Melinda.

The UC students not only won Elkins' freedom, they might have identified the real killer.

"I had faith this would happen," Elkins said. "The Innocence Project, along with my family, has been amazing. They've helped bring justice today."

Guided by several lawyers across the state, University of Cincinnati Law School students David Laing, Un Kyong Ho, Scott Evans and Meghan Anderson spent two years working to free Elkins.

Elkins, now 42, was convicted in 1999 of rape, murder and attempted aggravated murder for the death of his mother-in-law, Judith Johnson, and the rape of his 6-year-old niece in June 1998 at Johnson's Barberton home. At trial, the little girl testified that the attacker was her "Uncle Clarence."

Elkins was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

The Ohio Innocence Project took up the case in January 2004 after Elkins' wife - who has always maintained that her husband didn't kill her mother - contacted them. Melinda Elkins says her husband was with her at the time.

"Our main goal was to get Clarence out of prison," said Ho, 26, a second-year law student who lives in Clifton and grew up in Sharonville.

Anderson, 23, of Hyde Park, added: "This is amazing. I couldn't believe after all this time it happened so quickly."

She estimated that the students spent hundreds of hours working on the case.

"So many people worked to make this happen," she said.

The students didn't let anything deter them, even when Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh resisted their first attempts to show that Elkins was innocent.

"Clarence motivated us," she said. "We had to look where we didn't look before."

Thursday, with two sets of DNA evidence in hand, Walsh was finally convinced. She got a court order vacating the convictions.

At a news conference, she pointed to another suspect, but no charges have been filed. She said new evidence based on polygraphs and the new suspect's admission that he was in the Johnson home the night of the murder, combined with DNA evidence, convinced her that Elkins was innocent.

"This has been an incredible experience," said Mark Godsey, a UC law professor and faculty director of the Ohio Innocence Project. "It's part of a phenomenon across the country in which people are being cleared through DNA."

Nationwide, 164 people have been cleared through work done by Innocence Projects such as UC's. The Ohio Innocence Project, a nonprofit group started in 2003 and supported by donations, currently has 10 cases pending in court across the state.

After hearing from Melinda, students looked into Elkins' case. They were intrigued.

Elkins' niece had recanted her story. And there was DNA testing that could be done.

"Right away, we realized this could be a great DNA case," Evans, 25, of Clifton, said.

Evans joined the Innocence Project knowing that he could help be a catalyst in seeing justice served.

"The eyewitness had recanted, and the timeline was messed up. It didn't seem like Clarence could have been there. DNA testing could bring closure," Evans said.

The students identified a handful of other suspects, including a convicted sex offender who lived in the neighborhood. A search for the man revealed that he was in prison with Elkins, having been convicted in Summit County on charges of assault, robbery and rape, Godsey said.

Elkins himself helped secure a DNA sample from the man, collecting a cigarette butt from the man in his cell block whom the students suspected as the real killer. That man was living two doors away from the scene of the 1998 murder.

The students, with Godsey and help from Akron lawyer Jana DeLoach, brought the case back to court in March. Summit County Common Pleas Judge Judy Hunter denied Elkins a new trial, saying the possibility of DNA evidence that showed another man might be involved would not overcome evidence presented at trial.

The students persisted. An early DNA test linked the man Walsh referred to Thursday to semen taken from the grandmother and from the underwear of the little girl. Then, another test finished this week showed a pubic hair on the girl's nightgown definitively matched that same man.

"I knew we'd get here eventually," said Laing, 26, of Clifton, a third-year law student. He called Thursday the "greatest day ever."

Laing got involved with the Innocence Project in June to see if he wanted to practice criminal law.

He's graduating in May and said working on the Elkins case has convinced him to go into criminal law.

Through tears, speaking from Columbus after hearing Elkins had been exonerated, John Cranley, a Cincinnati city councilman, lawyer and the project's administrative director, said, "This shows how important the Innocence Project is."

Elkins, speaking just after his release, said he's still piecing together how his freedom - so long denied - came about so rapidly.

"It's hard for me to grasp," he said. "I'm overwhelmed with the joy and love that's around me."

He and Melinda headed home to Louisville, near Canton.

Spending time with his family is the only thing he was thinking about.

"I'm going to take it one day at a time," he said.