On September 14, 1974, Isaiah Andrews found out that his newlywed wife, Regina Andrews, had been brutally murdered. Although no physical evidence linked Isaiah to the murder, a week later, he would be indicted for the crime. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. Isaiah spent the next 46 years of his life wrongfully convicted and imprisoned of the murder of his wife.
In 2015, the Ohio Innocence Project repeatedly filed public-records requests with the Cleveland Police Department for the case file on Regina’s murder. The department did not respond. In 2017, OIP filed an application for DNA testing of items from the sexual-assault kit. Over prosecutors’ objections, a judge ordered the county medical examiner to to conduct DNA testing on any biological material still in its possession. Testing by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation ensured, and BCI requested that both the prosecutors and OIP’s lawyers provide any examination notes from the original coroner’s report. When prosecutors responded, they sent a more extensive case file, which included the records OIP had requested in 2015. The files showed police had arrested Willie Watts for Regina’s death, but did not pursue him because of an alibi he proffered.
In a motion for a new trial filed on October 4, 2019, OIP’s attorney argued that police initially focused on had quickly focused on Mr. Watts, that he had other arrests involving assaults on women, and was convicted in 1980 of felonious assault and arson after he tried to burn down an ex-girlfriend’s house. OIP also argued that at the time of the original trial in 1974, prosecutors did not provide exculpatory evidence, and that defense counsel for the original trial had been told that no traces of blood had been found in Isaiah’s home or car, and that there was a non-disclosed witness whose name and address were not being released. Over prosecutors’ objections, a Cleveland judge granted the motion for new trial, and on May 5, 202020, he released Isaiah from prison for the first time in nearly a half-century.
The Cuyahoga County prosecutor forced Isaiah to stand for a trial a second time. The prosecutor offered to let Isaiah plead guilty to a lesser charge to remove the threat of going back to prison. Isaiah rejected the offer, saying he wanted justice for his wife. At the time, he was undergoing radiation and chemotherapy but appeared every day for the retrial, which began on October 19, 2021.
Because most of the original witnesses were dead, their testimony from the first trial was read into the record before jurors. The physical evidence in the case had been destroyed. Isaiah’s defense attorney, assisted by OIP lawyers, presented new exculpatory evidence that had never been presented to a jury, including a detective’s report that noted Isaiah had been excluded as the source of a bloody palm print found at the scene of the crime. Defense counsel also introduced the evidence of the investigation into Mr. Watts.
After less than 90 minutes of deliberations, the jury acquitted Isaiah on October 27, 2021.
At the time of his acquittal, Isaiah was 83 years old, confined to a wheelchair, and suffering from a recurrence of cancer. But he remained strong in spirit, determined to pursue justice. He succeeded. In March 2022, a Cleveland judge declared that Isaiah was innocent of the crimes for which he had been convicted.
When a reporter asked Isaiah what could be done to make things right, he answered simply, “Be sure it doesn’t happen again.” At the time, Isaiah’s voice was barely above a whisper. It belied his incredible strength and determination to secure justice not only for himself, but for Regina.
In his freedom, Isaiah lived in Exoneree Home, where he was cared for by the only family he had left: his devoted attorneys, and his fellow exonerees, including Charles Jackson and Raymond Towler, Raymond’s partner, Kelly McLaughlin, and Joe Vasil, a generous volunteer who devoted time and resources to many OIP clients. Together, they provided physical and emotional care to Isaiah, and made sure that his needs were met.
Isaiah died, in peace and with justice, on April 10, 2022.
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