Meet our Exonerees
All combined, the 27 men and women exonerated thanks to the work of the Ohio Innocence Project at Cincinnati Law served nearly a half a century behind bars for crimes they did not commit. Twenty-five lives forever wronged by the criminal justice system transformed into countless prayers answered and family members reunited.
Here are glimpses into a few of their stories:
Gary Reece served 25 years in prison for a crime that did not happen. He was convicted in 1980 for attempted murder and rape based solely on the eyewitness testimony of the complaining witness with mental illness, whose testimony was shown to unreliable. Investigation by Ohio Innocence Project at Cincinnati Law students revealed that the complaining witness had a history of self-mutilation, which explained the injuries she suffered on the day of the alleged crime. After his release in 2005, Reece became a popular motivational speaker and an advocate for those wrongfully convicted. He died in 2010.
Clarence Elkins sat behind bars for seven and a half years for a horrendous crime he knew he didn't commit. Convicted of the brutal rape and murder of his mother-in-law and the beating and rape of his 6-year-old niece, Elkins never stopped believing that one day he would get his life back. With support from his wife, new DNA evidence and the determined efforts of Cincinnati Law students and faculty, he won his freedom in 2005. He was the Ohio Innocence Project at Cincinnati Law's first exoneree and has remained a staunch and vocal supporter of the group's work ever since.
Chris Bennett spent four years in prison for aggravated vehicular homicide, a conviction that was reversed by the Ohio Court of Appeals in 2006. DNA evidence and an eyewitness, both secured with help from students at Cincinnati Law, helped lead to Bennett's exoneration. He died in 2009.
Bruce Paul, convicted of unlawful sexual conduct in 1993, always maintained his innocence. He was exonerated in 2008, after serving 14 years in prison.
Robert McClendon served 18 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of the rape of a 10 year old girl. His exoneration in 2008 came after advanced DNA testing proved he did not contribute to the evidence found on the girl's underwear. The Ohio Innocence Project, in conjunction with the Columbus Dispatch, selected McClendon's case as one of 30 that best advanced DNA evidence standards that went into effect in 2006.
Joseph R. Fears, Jr.
Joseph R. Fears, Jr., spent 25 years incarcerated after being convicted in connection to a pair of rapes committed in Columbus, Ohio, in 1983. DNA evidence from one of the rapes found during a records review not only ruled out Fears as having committed that crime, but also showed the DNA to be a match to material in a national FBI DNA database. That DNA came from a felon, since deceased, from Michigan, who further investigation by Franklin County authorities showed was in the Columbus area at the time of the crime. Students from the OIP had initially reviewed the case of Fears, who has always maintained his innocence in the attacks against both women, as part of a joint project with the Columbus Dispatch newspaper to identify cases of prisoners where review of evidence could lead to conclusive revelations on their guilt or innocence, based on advances made in DNA technology. Fears was released from prison in 2009.
Nancy Smith, a Head Start bus driver, served 15 years for child molestation before being exonerated when a Loraine County Common Pleas Court judge granted a new trial, then acquitted her in 2009. Ohio Innocence Project at Cincinnati Law 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.
Willie Knighten served 12 years for a murder he did not commit after 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, the Ohio Innocence Project at Cincinnati Law helped Knighten petition Ohio's governor for an executive clemency in 2009.
Raymond Towler spent 29 years imprisoned up for a crime he did not commit before he was released in 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. Work by the Ohio Innocence Project at Cincinnati Law led to DNA testing that conclusively proved Towler's innocence.
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 testimony. 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. He had served 10 years.
Wally Zimmer spent 12 years in prison for a murder conviction that took students at Ohio Innocence Project at Cincinnati Law more than five years to prove was unjust. DNA testing found another suspect's DNA all over the crime scene, including on the cloth bindings that were used to tie the victim. He was released in 2011.
David Ayers spent 11 years in prison for murdering a 76-year-old woman who lived in the public-housing complex where he had been employed as a security guard. He steadfastly claimed his innocence of the 1999 crime, but it wasn't until 2011 that he was freed, after advanced DNA testing facilitated by OIP excluded him as a potential perpetrator. He had been sentenced to life in prison without parole for aggravated murder, aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary.
Roger “Dean” Gillispie
Roger “Dean” Gillispie walked out of prison into the arms of his mother and father three days before Christmas in 2011—after serving 20 years in prison for rapes that he had always maintained he did not commit. OIP first took on Gillispie's case in 2003, and students worked doggedly to overturn his conviction. They maintained that Gillispie didn’t get a fair trial in 1991 when he was convicted of rape, kidnapping and aggravated robbery for crimes committed in 1988 in Harrison and Miami townships. Not only was there no physical evidence connecting him to the crimes, information withheld from the jury in 1991 included the fact that the original investigating police detectives had eliminated Gillispie as a suspect because he did not fit the physical description of the rapist which the victims had given, nor did he fit the profile of the rapist.
Bryant “Rico” Gaines
Bryant “Rico” Gaines walked out of prison a free man in 2012 after serving nine years of a life sentence for a murder the both he and the Ohio Innocence Project say he did not commit. Gaines decided to take a plea deal to a reduced charge of “conspiracy to commit manslaughter.” After many years of imprisonment and push back from the judicial system, Gaines determined that this was his best option to be free in a case that shows, among other legal lessons, how difficult it is for an innocent man to win his freedom when there is no DNA in his case.
Glenn Tinney, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, confessed in 1992 to killing a man whom he could not identify and whose death took place in 1988. He was convicted solely based upon his confession with no other evidence linking him to the Mansfield, Ohio, crime. 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. 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 in 2013 after more than 20 years in prison.
Douglas Prade, a former Akron police captain, walked free in 2013 following 15 years of serving a life sentence for the murder of his ex-wife, Margot. In 1997, he had been convicted of shooting her, but DNA from a bite-mark on her lab coat excluded him when the case went back to court. Ohio Innocence Project at Cincinnati Law students worked to overturn his wrongful conviction for 10 years, starting with the launch of OIP in 2003.
Dewey Jones spent 20 years in prison after being convicted of killing 71-year-old Neal Rankin, who was shot in the head twice at close range in 1993. In April 2012, DNA tests obtained by the Ohio Innocence Project at Cincinnati Law 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. He was released in January 2014.
Ricky Jackson spent 39 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, which gives him a tragic distinction: in 2014, he set the record for the longest-serving person to be exonerated in U.S. history. All tolled, Jackson and co-defendants Wiley and Ronnie Bridgeman, together served over 100 years in prison for the 1975 killing a money-order collector at a Cleveland grocery store. The convictions were based on a lie by a then 12-year-old boy who later recanted his story. OIP's exhaustive investigation included finding and gaining the trust of witnesses as well as pursuing the release of critical public records.
Wiley Bridgeman, who along with Jackson was convicted of the Cleveland murder, was also exonerated in 2014 after serving 39 years behind bars.
Kwame Ajamu, who previously was known as Ronnie Bridgeman, was exonerated for the same Cleveland crime as his brother Wiley Bridgeman and Ricky Jackson. He served 28 years of his life sentence and was released in 2014-15 .
Derrick Wheatt, Laurese Glover and Eugene Johnson
Derrick Wheatt, Laurese Glover and Eugene Johnson had their convictions for the 1995 murder of Clifton Hudson Jr. thrown out in 2015, after nearly a decade of legal advocacy from the Ohio Innocence Project at Cincinnati Law. Two events precipitated the triple exoneration: a key eyewitness recanted her testimony, and the court learned that information from police reports that cast doubt on the defendants’ guilt had not been disclosed to the trial team years earlier.
Jim Parsons served 23 years of what nearly became a life sentence for the murder of his wife. Then, in 2016, his conviction was overturned after intervention by the Ohio Innocence Program at Cincinnati Law. Parsons was arrested 12 years after his wife's murder and his conviction was based on contaminated evidence. Parsons’ OIP case spanned ten years and 21 law students. His release allowed him to spend some time with his family before his death in 2017.
Evin King served 23 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murdering his girlfriend in 1994. Despite no direct evidence of his guilt, King went to prison in 1995. He never gave up hope that the court would consider the DNA evidence that clearly exonerated him. Still, it was only after years of concerted effort by students and staff at the Ohio Innocence Project at Cincinnati Law—and a new Cuyahoga County prosecutor—that the case against King was overturned. He was released in 2017.