From the Ohio Dispatch:
The five men who were caged in prison cells for a combined 99 years for rapes and murders they didn’t commit stepped into the cramped elevator.
They were meeting for the first time.
As the doors closed, these members of an exclusive club smiled at one another and remembered when their lives were confined to cells only a little bigger than the elevator.
DNA testing has given Robert McClendon, Joseph Fears, Ray Towler, David Ayers and Doug Prade their freedom, but not the time they lost.
“You can’t reclaim the life you had; you just try to fit into the new one as best you can,” McClendon said. “When people hear about our cases, I hope they don’t think of us. I hope they think of the other innocent people locked up in prison. DNA testing has helped a lot, but there is a lot more that can be done in the future to help the criminal-justice system.”
The five men were freed following The Dispatch series “Test of Convictions,” which exposed Ohio’s flawed evidence-retention and DNA-testing systems.
The series’ five-year anniversary this past week took on greater significance when a Summit County judge declared that Prade, a former Akron police captain, is innocent of murdering his ex-wife. Prade’s DNA didn’t match the DNA on a bite mark left by the killer.
Prade’s case was one of more than 300 The Dispatch reviewed with the Ohio Innocence Project. The project highlighted the cases of 30 prime candidates for testing and arranged for free testing with the DDC DNA Diagnostics Center in Cincinnati. Immediately after its publication, attorneys for the Innocence Project filed applications for testing on behalf of the inmates.
McClendon, 56, of Columbus, was the first to be exonerated, in August 2008. Fears, 65, of Columbus, was freed in March 2009. Towler, 55, of Cleveland, was exonerated in May 2010. Ayers, 56, was released in September 2011, and then Prade, 66, followed last week.
Four men also have been proved guilty, seven were denied testing and in 10 cases, the testing was inconclusive.
For a few others, the testing and slow legal process continue.
One of those inmates is Akron native Dewey Jones, who had his 1995 murder conviction overturned last year after DNA testing results excluded him. Jones is still in prison pending appeals, awaiting word on whether he will receive a new trial.
Another is Robert Caulley of Columbus, who was convicted in 1997 of killing his parents but granted a new trial last year after it was learned that his trial attorney had a sexual affair with his then-wife before, during and after his trial. The Ohio Supreme Court is now considering an appeal by the Franklin County prosecutor’s office in Caulley’s case.
DNA testing has helped set free 303 wrongly convicted inmates across the country, and more states continue to embrace laws that make it easier for inmates to receive a test.
After the Dispatch project, Ohio passed what is considered to be among the strongest laws in the nation to protect against future wrongful convictions.
Experts in the system say the law has had great impact in preserving and accessing evidence in felony cases that often was discarded or lost in cases of the past.
It also continues to eliminate the use of traditional police lineups that could have biased witnesses identifying suspects in previous criminal cases. Some prosecutors and judges are also more open to DNA testing post-conviction; in the past, the overwhelming majority of testing applications were systematically opposed or denied.
But those in Ohio who represent about 400 inmates who have filed innocence claims say the criminal-justice system is still weighted against them. Among the biggest complaints is the time it takes the post-conviction cases to drag through the system. Even after being granted testing, some inmates wait years for the actual testing, results, follow-up testing and legal rulings.
“There has been an upward shift in favor of DNA testing, but it’s still not complete or where it needs to be,” said Mark Godsey, director of the Cincinnati-based Ohio Innocence Project.
“DNA has been an incredible gift to our criminal-justice system. It’s like a crystal ball, letting us gaze inside and travel back in time to find out what really happened. Why some of the judges and prosecutors are hesitant to look inside and learn, I’ll never understand.”
The first four freed Ohioans gathered at The Dispatch to commemorate the project and meet Prade, who, coincidentally, was released on the fifth anniversary of the Dispatch series.
While sharing plates of spaghetti and lasagna at a local restaurant, which Prade called the best meal he had eaten in 15 years, the men swapped stories about life on the inside and just how much the world had changed on the outside.
They talked of how hard it was to visit grave sites of loved ones they lost while they were stuck in prison.
How they had to ask strangers for instructions to flush toilets or wash their hands in public bathrooms because they found no handles.
How shocked they were when they heard a car talk or used the Internet for the first time.
How difficult it was to see that their children were no longer young and to meet grandchildren for the first time.
Prade’s journey back into society is only days old. He started with only a suit that he last wore 15 years ago. He bought a winter coat, applied for a driver’s license and his birth certificate, and cherished reuniting with his siblings, children and grandchildren.
“People keep asking me what it’s like to be out, and I don’t really know, because it’s been less than a day,” Prade said. “But these other guys have been out there going through all kinds of things. I know it will be a long road.”
The bright side
Water was dripping from the ceiling, and heat wasn’t flowing from the furnace when David Ayers moved into his one-bedroom apartment on Cleveland’s east side. It took weeks for the landlord to make the repairs.
“It was no big deal,” Ayers said with a genuine smile. “I survived.”
When he needs to go anywhere, Ayers has to take the city bus because he can’t afford a car or much else on his fixed income.
“Walking is good for me, and I don’t have to pay for parking,” Ayers said, again smiling.
Ayers, who served 11 years in prison, can find the bright side in just about anything — except for the thought of other innocent people being locked in prison.
And that’s what prompted him to enroll in criminal-justice classes at a small, private college about a year after his release from prison. He has maintained a B average in the two-year program and hopes to work within the legal system fighting in some way for men who can’t fight for themselves.
“I want to help others that are in my situation,” Ayers said.
Ayers’ situation is complicated. Prosecutors dismissed his 2000 murder conviction for killing an elderly woman after DNA collected from the crime scene didn’t match his. But they didn’t declare him wrongly convicted. That means he isn’t yet eligible to collect compensation from the state. His attorneys have filed both federal and state civil suits.
He realizes it was a gamble to borrow about $30,000 for his college classes without knowing his financial future, but Ayers didn’t want to put his life on hold during the legal wrangling.
As usual, Ayers just smiles when asked whether he is angry or upset at the criminal-justice system.
“I’m just glad I have heat now,” he said. “And the bus isn’t so bad.”
The day Joseph Fears was freed from prison after 26 years, there were about a dozen excited people outside the Franklin County jail waiting for his release. They described themselves as Fears’ family and friends. They vowed to help Fears, who suffers from mental illness, adjust to his new life.
Shortly after that day and now almost four years later, Fears has barely seen any of them. The only one Fears knows was sincere about helping him was his brother Kenneth , who died of cancer about two years ago in California. The rest wanted money, believing Fears would reap millions for being locked up for so long.
“It showed me just how insincere and fake most people are out here,” Fears said. “The people I was in prison with have more character. There is more of an honor code in there.”
Fears proudly admits to being a product of the streets and has struggled with wild mood swings that are generated by bipolar disorder. He takes medication to control depression and anger, but it’s not always enough. And at times he has associated with the kind of people who could potentially lead him back into prison.
He blew through $239,000 in compensation for being wrongly convicted in about four months. He admits to partying some of it away and was robbed of tens of thousands. All that remains is his home on Columbus’ North Side which he bought with cash. It’s now for sale because he wants the money to start some type of small business.
Fears didn’t receive millions for being wrongly convicted like some others. DNA testing exonerated him on one rape charge, but prosecutors couldn’t find the evidence needed for testing in a second conviction. Fears says his attorney is still trying to clear him of that conviction and is planning on filing a civil suit.
In the meantime, he continues doing good deeds through his Baptist church — for children and for those who have spent time in prison. But he admits to still roaming the streets at times.
He says it’s a mix of interests he received from his parents.
“My mama raised a Christian gentleman,” he said. “My daddy raised a hustler.”
The suburban police officer pulled over Robert McClendon mainly because the tinted windows on his luxury car were too dark.
McClendon agreed the windows were a problem and only received a warning.
But during the traffic stop last summer, McClendon had taken off his seat belt to reach for his registration and was eventually cited for not wearing the safety belt.
McClendon, who served 18 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, felt like he was again being falsely accused.
So the man who has received about $1.5 million in compensation for being wrongly convicted appeared in court four separate times to fight a $60 ticket. He lost at trial but appealed the ticket in Franklin County, where it was finally dismissed.
“The officer was nice about everything, but I was wearing that seat belt,” he said. “I would have paid a fine for the windows because they are dark, but I wasn’t going to admit to doing something I didn’t do.”
Since being released from prison 41/2 years ago, McClendon has tried to balance his life by supporting his children and grandchildren, treating himself to a few nice things like his Acura NSX and raising public awareness of wrongful convictions.
But in the past year, he has focused on fulfilling a promise made to his mother just before she died in December 2006 — to reunite with his two brothers.
The three men have had their differences over the years, and at times had lost contact with one another. But whether it’s playing basketball, having dinner or just hanging out at McClendon’s spacious home on the city’s East Side, the brothers are now giving their mother what she desired.
McClendon purchased three cremation urns containing his mother’s ashes. He and his brothers are planning to hold a memorial service in her memory this coming week.
“I wish she had been here to see me set free,” he said. “But I know it would give her peace to know her sons are family.”
Ray Towler stood outside the prison where he served most of 29 years as a wrongly convicted man and gazed through the barbed-wire fence to see if he recognized anyone.
He was anxiously waiting outside of the Grafton Correctional Institution in northeastern Ohio last month for one of his friends to be released on parole.
Finally, when William Harris, a convicted murderer, walked through the last steel door, Towler was there to embrace him.
“Come on out of there, man,” Towler said to Harris, who had served a 25-year sentence. “Don’t worry; we will take care of you and get you all set up.”
Even though the prison is where the majority of his life was stripped away, Towler considers it his former home.
Since his release almost three years ago, Towler has been back to Grafton numerous times to visit and counsel his friends.
Two years ago, he sent about 20 inmates $50 to $100 each, just to show them he hadn’t forgotten them and so they could buy a little extra food at the prison commissary.
Towler received a record $2.57 million from the state for being wrongly convicted, and even more money from a civil suit, but you wouldn’t know it by the clothes he wears, the Toyota Prius he drives or his nice but modest home in Elyria.
Towler, who was wrongly convicted of rape in 1981, said he attempts to help the men he believes are regretful about their crimes, have found faith and want to do the right thing when they are released.
“I don’t judge people based on their circumstances,” Towler said. “I would try to measure up guys inside, and you get a feel for who wants to do good. And it’s those guys I want to help get a foundation in life when they are released.”
Towler is taking that help even further for Harris. Upon Harris’ release, Towler and his girlfriend, Brenda Moore-Nichols, drove Harris to their home and showed him his new bedroom.
“I made a mistake a long time ago, but Ray doesn’t hold that against me,” Harris said. “He kept his word and didn’t forget his friends in here.”