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Ohio Innocence Project Helps Man Clear His Name After Wrongful Conviction


A joint project between the Ohio Innocence Project, based in the UC College of Law, and the Columbus Dispatch helped set the stage for a release from prison of a Columbus man after 25 years behind bars.

Date: 3/6/2009 12:00:00 AM
By: Carey Hoffman
Phone: (513) 556-1825

UC ingot   The Ohio Innocence Project (OIP), based in the University of Cincinnati College of Law, has helped pave the way for another Ohio prisoner to clear his name after being wrongfully convicted.

Joseph R. Fears, Jr., has been incarcerated since being convicted in connection to a pair of rapes committed in Columbus, Ohio, in 1983. Recently identified 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.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien has prepared a motion to the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas to vacate Fears’ convictions related to that rape, which should pave the way for Fears immediate release from prison.

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.

The UC law students who worked on researching the legal aspects of Fears’ case were Jon Ford and Nick Ensley, while OIP attorney Jennifer Paschen Bergeron supervised.

The review of Fears’ convictions could not go forward, however, as the prosecution said it could not locate evidence from the crime.

However, circumstances began to turn in Fears’ favor last summer when another case reviewed as part of the OIP/Columbus Dispatch joint project, that of Robert McClendon, proved via DNA that McClendon could not have committed the crime he was being held for. The case made such an impression on O’Brien, the Franklin County prosecutor, that he ordered a comprehensive review of the county’s evidence room and case files.

That search turned up evidence related to both cases in which Fears was convicted; however, only one of the sets of evidence turned out to have DNA material available for testing.

“The primary credit for this exoneration goes to Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien,” says OIP Faculty Director and UC College of Law Professor Mark Godsey. “O’Brien of his own initiative went back after the McClendon exoneration and looked again for cases where evidence could be found, and then had the test done exonerating Fears. This is exactly the kind of prosecutor we need in Ohio – tough on crime but also willing to recognize the need for justice for all parties involved.”

Since no DNA evidence was capable of being tested from the other rape, two counts related to that case will be left standing. Fears, however, has always maintained that while he had a dispute with that victim, no sexual activity – let alone rape – occurred.

The maximum punishment for those two counts, regardless, is less than the more than 25 years in prison that Fears has already served, meaning the state will seek his immediate release.

Link to Columbus Dispatch article on the Fears' case