Jim Petro's crusade

By
From the October 2010 edition

A steadfast champion of law and order issues, Jim Petro was new to his job as Ohio’s attorney general when he became aware that Anthony Michael Green had been wrongfully convicted of rape.

The powerful revelation changed his life.

“I did not really believe the wrong guys went to jail, and then I learned that that was not necessarily the case,” Petro says in his law office at Roetzel & Andress, his voice made raspy by chemo and radiation treatments for a neck tumor. “It’s my first year as attorney general, and I’m saying, ‘Holy cow, I never knew this kind of thing could happen.’ ”

That was only the beginning.

The epiphany led Petro to uncharted territory and into an unprecedented and very public head-to-head clash with a county prosecutor when Petro advocated for the release of another wrongly imprisoned man. With that stand, Petro became the nation’s first attorney general to intervene on behalf of the Innocence Project, a New York-based organization dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted through DNA testing.

But that critical, risky showdown, sustained by Petro’s efforts along with help from others, eventually led to the release of Clarence Elkins, an innocent man convicted of murder and two rapes who had spent nearly eight years in prison.

Elkins’s former wife recruited Martin Yant, a private investigator and owner of Ace Investigations, for help. Both worked hard, but the pace quickened once Petro got involved, an effort Yant calls extraordinary and courageous. “He took a lot of heat and ridicule, but obviously it was the right thing to do,” Yant says. “Justice probably would have been achieved eventually, but Petro’s stand shortened the process significantly.”

Petro, along with his wife, Nancy, has written a book—False Justice: 8 Myths that Convict the Innocent (Kaplan Publishing)—that will be released in October about both cases and other wrongful convictions.

In the prologue, Petro expresses hope that the book will correct common misunderstandings within the criminal justice system and help readers better understand how easy it can be for the innocent to be imprisoned. “True justice is a search for truth, requiring constant vigilance, and is ultimately the responsibility of every citizen,” Petro writes.

The nation’s prisons house 2.3 million inmates; in Ohio, more than 50,000 people are imprisoned. Since 1989, DNA evidence has exonerated 255 people nationally, each having served an average of 13 years in prison. Among those released, 17 were on death row. In 111 of those cases, authorities identified the true guilty parties. Nine inmates in Ohio have been exonerated since 1994; three were from Franklin County.

Petro believes that at least 1 percent of the prison population could be innocent, which equates to 23,000 people nationally and 500 in Ohio serving time for crimes they did not commit. “That’s not small change,” he says. “So, 255 Innocent Project exonerations is just the tip of the iceberg.”

He developed a PowerPoint presentation and is formulating a legal education course to teach people in and out of the criminal justice system. Research reveals six contributing factors along with eight widely held myths (see “Myths”) that expose the system to wrongful convictions. The factors include false confessions, unreliable informants and snitches, bad lawyering, unreliable science, government misconduct and mistaken eyewitness testimony.

The lion’s share of wrongful convictions, up to 75 percent, occur because of false identification, says Nancy Petro, a marketing, graphic design and business management consultant who did most of the writing for their book. The idea came in a dream that she calls divinely inspired. “It’s important that the public understands this so we can get more support behind efforts to improve the justice system,” she says.

One of the most commonly held myths is that every inmate claims innocence. “In reality, that is much less prominent than you think,” Jim Petro says.

The criminal justice system has a tendency to push questions and inconsistencies under the rug rather than reopening a case, he says. “There is nothing wrong with a consistent re-examination where it is called for and where there is merit behind the evidence that surfaces,” Petro says. “Michael Green opened my eyes to wrongful convictions. Clarence Elkins really opened my eyes to that.”

Petro grew up in Brooklyn, Ohio, a blue-collar suburb of Cleveland. A lifelong Republican, his political roots run to his father, also an attorney, who was an elected justice of the peace and a ward leader for 40 years. Petro met Nancy at Denison University and the two have been married for 38 years.

He served in public office for 28 years, including time as a Cuyahoga County commissioner, an Ohio House representative, eight years as state auditor and a four-year term as state attorney general beginning in 2003. As the chief legal officer for the state, he supervised 1,200 employees, including 350 lawyers who oversaw more than 35,000 legal cases.

Petro was attorney general for only five months when he first heard about Anthony Michael Green, released from prison in 2001 after DNA and another inmate’s confession cleared him of a 1988 Cleveland rape conviction.

Green had spent nearly 13 years in prison, and the state had been dragging its feet in reimbursing him. But Connie Schultz, a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, took up Green’s cause and the public weighed in, sending 350 angry e-mails to Petro on one day.

He examined the case and then took the groundbreaking step of authorizing a payment of more than $500,000 to Green. “I was shocked to find that someone had been in prison for so long and had absolutely nothing to do with the crime,” he says. “He was plucked from obscurity and convicted of a crime, and he wasn’t anywhere near the scene.”

Petro has long advocated for the use of DNA evidence. Soon after he became attorney general, he won legislative approval to collect DNA mouth swabs from every convicted felon. In three years, officials entered 210,000 samples into a national database, resulting in the resolution of several cold cases. Later, Petro and Jim Canepa, his chief deputy, successfully lobbied for a bill that allowed prisoners to request DNA tests if such evidence was available at their alleged crime scene.

“Prosecutors fought that tooth and nail,” Petro says. “Many thought I was a traitor to the cause, but I believed in making sure we had all the tools to do justice.”

In September 2005, Mark Godsey, a professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law and the director of the Ohio Innocence Project, told Petro that Elkins had been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for the brutal rape and murder of his mother-in-law and the beating and rape of his 6-year-old niece.

Although DNA evidence excluded Elkins from the crime scene, Summit County judges and the prosecutor resisted all efforts for a new trial. The FBI declined to intervene, so Godsey decided to try something out of the ordinary—recruit the state attorney general.

“Several people told us that Petro is a man of integrity who would do what is right, regardless of politics,” Godsey says. “So we rolled the dice and approached him. Our sources proved to be right.”

Canepa researched the case and soon it was clear that Elkins was innocent. DNA evidence from a cigarette butt that Elkins pocketed from fellow inmate Earl Mann—imprisoned for a different crime and just by chance in the same institution—cemented that belief when it conclusively matched the DNA found at the crime scene.

Nonetheless, Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh refused to speak with Canepa. “It seemed like I was taking shots from my own team,” Canepa says of the prosecutorial resistance. “That really surprised me. I couldn’t even have an intellectual discussion. It was just animosity and accusations of politics.”

Although he was “almost embarrassed to get involved,” Petro decided to “use the tool of last resort—the bully pulpit of my office.” He held a press conference to discuss the case on Oct. 28, 2005.

A second DNA match from a pubic hair also linked Mann to the crime scene, but Walsh continued to resist. Petro scheduled another news conference in December.

Just prior to the gathering, a Summit County judge informed Petro that he had just granted a motion by Walsh to dismiss all charges against Elkins. Later that afternoon, after nearly eight years of imprisonment for crimes he did not commit, Elkins left the Mansfield Correctional Institution a free man. In August 2008, Mann pleaded guilty to the murder and rapes in Summit County Common Pleas Court. A judge sentenced him to 55 years to life in prison.

(As it turns out, Walsh also was investigating the case, even handing over crime scene evidence to Elkins’s family over staff objections that proved crucial to his release. After Walsh researched Mann’s prior convictions and discovered that he had lived two doors away when the crimes were committed, she was appalled to realize the wrong man may have been convicted, according to news reports.)

“Very risky” is the way Elkins describes Petro’s public stance. “I’m impressed about how he really cares about people and puts truth and justice first. I’ll be forever grateful to him. Who knows where I’d be today if it wasn’t for him.” Elkins’s former wife, Melinda Dawson, became a self-taught detective, struggling for years to free her husband while taking the slings and arrows of anger from family members who thought he was guilty.

Now remarried, Dawson, working on her own book, says no other official of Petro’s stature has gone to bat for an innocent person convicted of rape and murder. “His involvement provided much-needed relief from the stress of the fight I endured for seven-plus years at that point,” Dawson says. “His actions in this case has, and will have, a positive feedback in the arena of wrongful convictions.”

Petro was primed to run for chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court this year, but treatment for a cancerous tumor in the soft tissue of his neck paralyzed a vocal cord, leaving his voice soft and hoarse, forcing him out of the race. He is slowly recovering and hasn’t ruled out another run for elected office.

He continues to push for use of DNA, backing recent legislation that permits DNA collection from every arrested felon. He is chairman of the Innocence Project Advisory Board and continues to do pro bono lawyering for the organization.

Currently, Petro is involved in the controversial case of Dean Gillispie in Montgomery County, convicted of the 1988 abduction and rape of two sisters. The victims identified him nearly two years after the crime. Gillispie has served nearly 22 years in prison, although many, including Petro, believe he is innocent. “Witness recollection of identification does not last two years,” he says.

Petro intends to continue Innocence Project work. “I’ve been referred to as the first attorney general in the country to intervene in an Innocence Project case, but what choice did I have?” he says. “There was not any great courage involved in doing so, but all of these things were an awakening for me.”

Myths

According to former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, these eight commonly held beliefs about the criminal justice system are really myths.

• Everyone in prison claims innocence.

• The system almost never convicts an innocent person.

• Only guilty people confess.

• Wrongful convictions are the result of innocent human error.

• An eyewitness is the best evidence.

• Conviction errors get corrected on appeal.

• It dishonors the victim to question a conviction.

• If the justice system has problems, the pros will fix them.

T.C. Brown is a freelance writer, editor and multimedia producer.