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Ohio man who served 45 years in prison finally free, thanks to UC’s OIP

After 45 years, Isiah Andrews thought he’d die in prison. Thanks to the OIP, he’s free

On a late summer’s afternoon in 1974, the seminude body of Regina Andrews was discovered near a Cleveland swim club. The crime was both shocking and savage: The newlywed had been brutally stabbed 11 times and wrapped in hotel linens.  

Three days later, police arrested her husband of just three weeks, Isiah Andrews, despite the fact that physical evidence in the crime strongly implicated that another man had committed the murder. Andrews, who has always maintained his innocence, was nevertheless eventually convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

A man in a blue suit stands in front of a large metal gate

Isiah Andrews finally walks free after serving nearly 46 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Photo: Mark Godsey

Andrews, now 82, thought he’d die in prison. But on Wednesday, nearly 46 years after he was incarcerated, he finally walked out of prison a free man, thanks to the tireless work of law students, professors and attorneys at the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) at the University of Cincinnati College of Law.

Andrews marks the 30th person freed with the help of the OIP. Combined, the 30 OIP clients have served nearly 600 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. 

“The things that lead to people being wrongfully convicted are really commonplace,” said Brian Howe, an OIP staff attorney and assistant professor of clinical law at the UC college. “But the ways that people are exonerated are really one-in-a-million, lightning-striking type of stories. That’s what I hope people understand about these cases, and Isiah Andrews' case.”

Lightning strikes for Isiah Andrews

The extraordinary chain of events leading to Andrews’ release was set in motion in 2015 when the OIP agreed to review his case.

Initially, the case was presented as a potential sexual assault and murder, explained Howe. Sperm had been collected from the victim’s body, but it had never been tested or compared to Andrews.

The OIP first issued a public records request under Ohio’s Public Records Act to the Cleveland Police Department for the case’s police file. When the agency did not respond, they issued another request a year later, this time to both the police department and city of Cleveland’s law department. Again, neither agency responded to the request.

In the spring of 2018, the OIP then filed a motion to have the DNA in the case tested, said Howe.

The things that lead to people being wrongfully convicted are really commonplace. But the ways that people are exonerated are really one-in-a-million, lightning-striking type of stories.

Brian Howe

“Our position is, when you have something that looks like a potential sexual assault and the person has maintained their innocence and the evidence still exists, there’s no harm in doing the testing,” he said. “No one is harmed by getting more information, especially when it could end up proving someone’s innocence.”

In July 2019, an appellate court granted Andrews’ motion to test the sexual assault kit for DNA. While the DNA was found to be too degraded to yield results, the testing process revealed another bombshell discovery.

After receiving the sexual assault kit, the state crime lab processing it requested additional case information. In response, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office sent the lab, along with Andrews’ attorneys at OIP, a copy of the case file, including several pages of police reports — the same reports requested by the OIP in 2015.

Those police reports revealed that police investigating the murder had initially suspected and even arrested another man, Willie Watts, of the crime — evidence of which had been unlawfully suppressed from Andrews and his attorneys for 45 years.

“That was the first we’d ever heard of Willie Watts,” said Howe. “There was nothing in the file or transcripts that indicated police ever investigated anyone else, especially that they ever arrested anyone else, let alone someone who had stripped the sheets off his bed that morning and who lived right next to where the body was found.”

a vintage postcard photo of a two-story white motel alongside a road

The Colonial House Motel where the Andrews stayed in 1974. Photo/Cleveland Memory Project

A bombshell discovery

No physical evidence tied Andrews to the crime, and prosecutors relied on the unreliable eyewitness testimonies of a maid and short-term tenant of the Colonial House Motel Andrews and his wife had been living in to obtain a conviction against him. 

Police did, however, find evidence linking Watts to the scene, all of which was documented in the newly obtained police reports, said Howe. 

The same day detectives discovered the body of Regina Andrews, they traced the bloody bedsheets she was found wrapped in to the Howard Johnson’s hotel where Watts had been staying. Detectives confirmed that Watts had stripped his bedsheets there that same morning. 

The victim’s body was found less than a quarter-mile from the home of Watts’ mother, where he had been living. Watts’ mother told police she had bailed him out of the county jail two days prior and kicked him out of her home the day before. On the same day the victim’s body was discovered, Watts broke into his mother’s home and stole valuables. 

As police searched for Watts, his mother warned police he was contacting a friend named “Ronald” to provide him with an alibi, according to the report. A pill bottle belonging to a “Ron Martin” was found by the victim’s head.

At this point, investigating officers believed Watts had committed the crime: “It is our opinion that this crime was committed by Willie H. Watts, who is apparently attempting to sell his mothers [sic] coat and her other valuables to get money to get away from this city,” according to the police report. 

When Watts finally spoke with police, he was immediately arrested. However, he provided several alibi witnesses for the three-hour early morning period in which the coroner initially estimated the victim had been killed, and he was released.

He’s innocent. The state has evidence that [Andrews is] innocent, and they had it in 1975 when they convicted him. They had a chance to fix it in 1975 and instead of fixing it, it was covered up.

Brian Howe

Police then turned their attention to Andrews. Although he cooperated fully with police and no physical evidence tied him to the bloody scene, he was nonetheless charged in the murder.

And even when the coroner revised the estimated time of death on the same day Andrews had been arrested — to a period for which police were able to verify most of Andrews’ alibi and for which Watts had no alibi — prosecutors continued with their case against Andrews.

UC’s Howe said it was shocking to see that the state had possessed evidence for 45 years that could exonerate his client.

“He’s innocent,” said Howe. “The state has evidence that he’s innocent, and they had it in 1975 when they convicted him. They had a chance to fix it in 1975 and instead of fixing it, it was covered up.”

Watts, Howe pointed out in court documents, has a history of violence against women involving knives.

Watts was indicted for kidnapping and assaulting two women with knives within several years of Regina Andrews’ murder. One case was dismissed on speedy trial grounds and charges were dismissed in the other. He was later convicted in 1980 of aggravated arson against a former girlfriend, whose children testified Watts had threatened their mother with a knife.

Watts died of natural causes in 2011, said Howe.

A man in a blue suit stands in front of a large sign spelling out Cleveland

Isiah Andrews savors his first few hours of freedom in Cleveland, Ohio, after being released from prison on May 6, 2020. Photo provided by Mark Godsey

A 'lucky' man walks free

If Andrews' defense had known about Watts in 1975, there is a reasonable chance he may have been acquitted, said Howe. 

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Robert McClelland agreed. On Friday, McClelland threw out Andrews’ conviction and ordered a new trial on the basis Andrews’ defense was never provided evidence regarding Watts.

"There is no way of telling whether the information concerning Watt was withheld or simply ignored as irrelevant when he was eliminated as a suspect by the police. Regardless, the information was not in the hands of the defense team to make their own decision of whether it would provide a defense for their client," the judge wrote in his ruling.

And on Wednesday, following a late afternoon bond hearing on Monday, Andrews finally walked out of prison a free man. 

“It’s hard to say that Isiah Andrews is lucky after all the wrongs that have been done to him the course of his life,” said Howe. “But in 99 times out of 100, he would have died in prison. This would have been successfully covered up. No one would have found out about Willie Watts.”

“There are so many cases where the evidence never comes out and the person maintains their innocence until they die, and the case is forgotten,” said Howe. “How many other people are out there who just don’t get lucky like that?”

As for Andrews, he feels both overjoyed and vindicated, said Howe. The OIP is working to assist him to  secure housing where he can safely quarantine due to his medical vulnerability from COVID-19 and with other needs. 

“Isiah Andrews can’t possibly get justice for this,” said Howe. “There’s nothing anyone can do to make this right for him. This is just about not continuing to make things worse. This is the least we can do, and maybe the most we can do.”

 

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A man in a blue suit stands in front of a large metal gate

Isiah Andrews's 1975 conviction for the murder of his wife of just three weeks was overturned after a team of attorneys, faculty and students with UC's Ohio Innocence Project discovered evidence that had been withheld from his defense that implicated another suspect in the crime. Photo: Mark Godsey

About the Ohio Innocence Project

The Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) at the University of Cincinnati College of Law — Ohio’s only law school-based innocence organization — is one of the most well-known and successful of its kind in the nation. Since its launch in 2003, the OIP has helped free 30 wrongfully convicted inmates who've collectively served nearly 600 years in prison. Read more about the OIP's latest exonerations below.

26: Ru-El Sailor released from prison after 15 years

27: UC proves innocence of Christopher Miller

28: Charles Jackson walks free after serving 27 years for murder

29: Christopher Smith walks free after 12 years and a COVID-19 scare

Read more about the OIP's earlier exonerees.
 

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Featured image at top: Brian Howe and Isiah Andrews after Andrews' release on Wednesday, May 6, 2020. Photo: Mark Godsey