After serving 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Robert McClendon once again became a free man on Monday – thanks in part to the Ohio Innocence Project and the power of DNA testing.
McClendon was granted a new trial and released on his own recognizance after a hearing in the downtown Columbus courtroom of Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Charles Schneider. More than 15 University of Cincinnati College of Law students who are part of the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) were on hand to witness the proceedings, along with about 20 excited friends and family members of McClendon.
Both the Franklin County prosecutor’s office and defense counsel from the OIP indicated after the hearing in media reports that they don’t expect charges to be re-filed against McClendon. That decision would make McClendon the third Ohio inmate to earn exoneration in the five-year history of the OIP, and end a legal odyssey that began for the Columbus resident in 1990, when he was arrested for a rape of a 10-year-old girl, a crime he has steadfastly denied committing ever since.
"The first thing he said when Mike (Harrington) and I went to meet him for the first time was ‘Before we get started, I just want to tell you guys I’m completely innocent of this crime,’ " recalled UC third-year law student Dan O’Brien, who worked on McClendon’s case for most of the last year as an OIP Fellow. "He said that we had to believe that fact if we were going to work on this case."
McClendon maintained confidence that a DNA test could clear him. O’Brien ended up drafting a brief that ultimately earned McClendon a chance at a DNA test, despite McClendon's having previous efforts to earn such a test before the OIP joined his case denied.
McClendon also benefited from a project being initiated by the Columbus Dispatch newspaper, which was partnering with the OIP to try and get DNA testing for the state’s inmates whose cases had the most potential to be helped (or hurt, if the DNA would prove their involvement) by the results of testing.
The Dispatch partnership ended up earning DNA testing for 30 inmates – McClendon is the first to have his results come back.
"We have more exciting cases that we are working on than at any other time in our history. The McClendon case is just the beginning," says OIP Faculty Director and UC Professor of Law Mark Godsey. "I think it’s also appropriate in this case to point out that Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien has been the model of what every citizen should want out of a prosecutor. He looked hard at the issues involved in this case, and when he saw what the facts were saying, he was reasonable and cooperative in trying to make sure the right thing got done."
The prosecutor’s office allowed for the DNA testing to be done on the underwear the victim was wearing when attacked. Just locating that piece of evidence, 18 years after the fact, was a chore for UC law students O’Brien and Harrington. New, more sensitive analyzing technology determined the presence of DNA material on the evidence, and when it was tested against a sample taken from McClendon in prison, it was shown not to be a match.
|OIP Faculty Director Mark Godsey and Robert McClendon at Monday's hearing, with McClendon's friends and family in the background.|
"Before we even had the DNA results, we had read the transcripts from the trial and had formulated opinions on what had happened," says Courtney Cunningham, a current OIP Fellow who took over the work on McClendon’s case in May along with partner Megan Tonner. "When the results came back, we were pleasantly surprised but not shocked. From that point, we just collaborated with the prosecutor’s office and worked to do what was best for them, best for us and best for Robert."
Cunningham and Tonner had their efforts this summer overseen by OIP attorney Jennifer Paschen Bergeron, the lead defense counsel on this case and herself a recent UC College of Law grad. Bergeron was a member of the college’s Class of 2002, shortly before the OIP came into existence.
"You just don’t know what is going to happen with a case like this," Bergeron says. "That’s the whole reason for having an Innocence Project and doing this kind of testing."
Monday’s hearing was a quick matter, lasting little more than 10 minutes. McClendon’s backers could be heard to gasp and cry softly when he was brought into the courtroom in handcuffs and leg irons.
Judge Schneider offered words of praise to both the prosecution and defense counsel who worked to recognize the ultimate issues of justice involved in the case, and then closed simply with, "Mr. McClendon, you are released on your own recognizance. Thank you, Mr. McClendon, and good luck to you."
UC law student Jason Masterson was among those who made the trip up to Columbus for the hearing. "It's just historic to be in the courtroom and see someone like Robert, who was wrongfully convicted, walk out."
Masterson, who had worked for three years in the Hamilton County Justice System as part of the Talbert House program before coming to law school, considers Monday's outcome an event that "restores your faith. With my background, I knew the realities of the system and wasn't going to be interested in being a part of the Innocence Project if the organization was too liberal. But what sold me was how strict the screening process is (for inmates). They've reviewed hundreds of cases, but only five have gone to court. That says they're being selective."
In McClendon's case, his assertion of innocence for so many years was borne out by Monday's events.
"I’m just thrilled for Robert," says Dan O’Brien. "It’s a great feeling knowing I was part of the project that freed him, and it just seems like a lot of hard work has paid off. That’s a great feeling."