Free at Last, Free for Now

UC’s Ohio Innocence Project helps overturn three questionable murder convictions

click to enlarge From left: Eugene Johnson, Derrick Wheatt and Laurese Glover sit with their attorneys on March 26 as a Cuyahoga County judge announces that their convictions have been thrown out after 19 years.
From left: Eugene Johnson, Derrick Wheatt and Laurese Glover sit with their attorneys on March 26 as a Cuyahoga County judge announces that their convictions have been thrown out after 19 years.

Twenty years ago, a young man was shot to death on a snowy February afternoon in East Cleveland. Eugene Johnson, Laurese Glover and Derrick Wheatt, all in their late teens at the time, were quickly arrested for the murder. One year later, based on the testimony of a single witness, they were convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the crime.

What their defense attorneys didn’t know is that other witnesses also saw the shooting and that their recollections of events were vastly different from the account that sent Johnson, Glover and Wheatt to prison. Now, thanks to nearly a decade of legal advocacy by the University of Cincinnati’s Ohio Innocence Project, they’ve been granted a new chance at justice.

The three men were released from prison on bond March 26 after Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Nancy Margaret Russo threw out their convictions and ordered a new trial on the accusation that former Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Carmen Marino withheld evidence in their original case. Russo handed down that decision after reviewing evidence collected by Ohio Innocence Project.

When Russo announced her decision, cheers burst out in the courtroom from those in attendance, many of whom wore “Free the East Cleveland Three” T-shirts.

Family, friends and media swarmed the small reception area in the Cuyahoga County jail later that day as the three men made their way out the security doors to freedom.

“This is crazy,” Glover kept repeating as he embraced his family. “I didn’t know this many people were going to be here.”

It’s another victory for OIP, which has been battling and overturning wrongful convictions of those least able to avail themselves of legal defense since it was founded in 2003.

Since 1989, more than 40 people statewide have been exonerated after they’ve been wrongfully imprisoned. Like Johnson, Glover and Wheatt, 31 of these exonerees have been people of color, who are statistically much more likely to be arrested and incarcerated even though they make up a minority of the state’s population. According to 2010 U.S. Census data, Ohio has 2,336 black, 1,072 Hispanic and 422 white prisoners per 100,000 people. This despite the fact the state is 83 percent white.

The Ohio Innocence Project, which runs out of UC’s College of Law, investigates and litigates cases where they believe prisoners have been wrongly convicted and imprisoned. The group is made up of UC law professors and students who use DNA evidence, new witnesses, evidence of police misconduct and other information to exonerate wrongfully convicted inmates. In just over a decade, they’ve helped free 18 inmates who were wrongfully convicted of murder and other charges. Among these is Ricky Jackson, another man from Cleveland who was released last November after he spent 39 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.

Now, the Ohio Innocence Project has won a big step toward exoneration for another group of men who look as though they might have been wrongfully imprisoned for the last 18 years.

Former Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Carmen Marino’s 1996 case against Johnson, Glover and Wheatt hinged mostly on the testimony of 14-year-old Tamika Harris, who said she saw a man jump out of a truck like the one the three were driving, shoot 19-year-old Hudson Clifton Jr., and then jump back into the truck. She told police at that time she didn’t see the shooter’s face, however.

But in their version of events, the three were out cruising in Glover’s new Chevy Blazer near the corner of Manhattan and Strathmore streets on the city’s east side the afternoon the shooting happened. As they were stopped at a stop sign there, they said they heard the gunshots that killed Clifton Jr., saw another man fleeing and quickly sped away from the shooting themselves.

Police stopped the three to question them about the crime, and they provided a description of the man they saw running away — about 5-foot-11 wearing a dark coat and a hooded sweatshirt. That description matched Harris’ and other witnesses.

Using Harris’ description of their truck, police charged them with the murder. But a number of other witnesses gave police accounts  that conflicted with Harris’ story and corroborated the three young men’s. They described a similar suspect jumping out of an unrelated black car, wrestling with the victim, then shooting him and running off. These witnesses were not called to trial and their statements were not made known to the defense team.

At trial, Harris admitted she had not actually seen the shooter jump out of the Blazer. But she said that she could positively identify Johnson as the shooter, despite having earlier said she didn’t see the shooter’s face. That, however, along with some gunpowder residue evidence from a method that has since been proven unreliable, was enough to send Johnson, Glover and Wheatt away to prison. The state offered Glover and Wheatt a plea deal if they would testify against Johnson, but the two insisted they were innocent and thus went to prison.

Cracks first began to show in the case in 2004, when Harris came forward and recanted her testimony. That led to a request for a new trial by Johnson’s lawyers. A trial court granted that motion, but an appeals court overturned it, citing the gunshot residue evidence in the case. Another motion challenging that evidence was also denied in 2009.

Then in 2013, the Ohio Innocence Project was able to obtain the original 1995 police records from the case, which revealed the other witnesses to the crime. Based on this revelation, Johnson, Glover and Wheatt have been granted a new trial.

“Carmen Marino is infamous in Cuyahoga County for his vindictive, unprofessional and outrageous misconduct in criminal cases,” said Judge Russo as she handed down her decision. “This deliberate, malicious and willful suppression of the evidence was his distortion of a criminal case to his own ends.”

The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office says it will appeal Russo’s ruling. Prosecutor Tim McGinty filed a motion challenging bond for the men, saying they had committed crimes like theft while in prison.
Meanwhile, the temporary freedom and the chance to make it permanent at a new trial are sweet, say the three exonerees. But they also come painfully late.

“It’s bittersweet,” Wheatt, whose parents died while he was in jail, told Cleveland media at their release. “I wish my mother and father could have been here to see it because they were my biggest supporters.” ©

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