The forensics laboratory at DNA Diagnostics Center (DDC) enjoyed a special visit on Thursday March 19, 2009 from Mr. Robert McClendon and Mr. Joseph Fears of Columbus, OH. These men were wrongly convicted and then imprisoned 18 and 25 years respectively for crimes that DNA testing proved they did not commit.
Since 2007, DDC has committed to provide pro bono DNA testing in Ohio cases identified by the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) as having legitimate claims of innocence. (Note: DDC has reduced rates for other states’ Innocence Projects.) Mr. McClendon’s innocence was proven in August 2008 when DDC completed the Y-STR testing that provided the ultimate proof that secured his release. Mr. Fears’ release this month resulted after the Franklin County Prosecutor said McClendon’s case made such a great impact on him that he ordered a thorough review of all evidence in old cases. The evidence in Fears’ case was found and testing proved that he was also innocent.
DDC’s President and CEO, Dr. Ellen Moscovitz, welcomed the exonerees warmly into DDC’s facility and presented them with tokens of admiration for their courage and perseverance. She expressed to the guests, “We are proud to provide the scientific expertise that can ensure justice. It is a privilege to meet the people on whose cases DDC worked because we realize that it’s not just a specimen, it’s a life.”
Joining Mr. McClendon and Mr. Fears at the DDC lab visit was their legal team from the University of Cincinnati, home to the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP). The OIP lawyers accompanied Mr. McClendon and Mr. Fears as they took a close look at the technology and equipment. They also met the analysts and support staff that helped to make their freedom a reality, led by Dr. Julie Heinig, DDC’s Assistant Laboratory Director in charge of Forensics and who oversaw the DNA testing in McClendon’s case.
OIP Faculty Director, Mark Godsey, expressed the magnitude of DDC’s commitment to justice by saying, “Since this movement started 15 years ago, no other lab has stepped up to this level in any other state. There has been no other example of corporate citizenship rising to this level.” Too often, inmates or their families cannot afford DNA testing, even if the state will release the evidence that could prove their innocence. In Ohio, DDC has removed that barrier to justice.
McClendon and Fears visited the actual forensic laboratory where the samples were examined and analyzed. When Dr. Heinig showed McClendon the exact microscope used to discover the spermatozoa that excluded him as the contributor to the evidence, tears misted their eyes as they embraced. Next, Dr. Heinig presented the gene fragment analyzer that processed the Y-STR markers that ultimately proved McClendon’s innocence. He struggled to express his appreciation, saying, “I am humbled by this experience. I know that this could not have happened without a lot of folks working together.” He added, “Thank God for DNA!”
The morning concluded with a presentation to DDC employees anxious to hear Mr. McClendon and Mr. Fears share some of their experiences and answer questions. McClendon explained that if not for the efforts of DDC, as well as the OIP and the Columbus Dispatch’s investigative series, “Test of Convictions,” he would probably still be in prison, serving his sentence until 2013. Mr. Fears echoed these sentiments, “I am flabbergasted. I had no idea of all the work involved to clear just one man.”