Ohio Innocence Project helps Lorain, Ohio, woman clear her name 27 years after wrongful conviction

Lorain County judge throws out conviction of Nancy Smith

It’s been 27 years since Nancy Smith, 64, a former Head Start bus driver from Lorain, Ohio, was arrested and charged with sexually abusing children in her care. She’s battled daily to clear her name ever since.

This week Lorain County Court of Common Pleas Judge D. Chris Cook granted motions for a new trial and Lorain County Prosecutor J.D. Tomlinson then asked the court to dismiss charges again Smith and a co-defendant Joseph Allen. Those charges were dismissed and they stemmed from a 1994 case. Smith’s innocence has long been championed by attorneys, law students and staff at the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) at the University of Cincinnati College of Law.

"The journey for Nancy Smith has been long, painful and patently unfair," says Mark Godsey, director of the Ohio Innocence Project and professor at the UC College of Law. "Nancy won't ever get her years of life back that were taken during incarceration, but her name will finally be cleared thanks to support from so many who care about the cause of justice."

The case was covered by Smith’s hometown newspaper the Chronicle Telegram, the Cleveland-based Fox 8 News and several media outlets as a result of the Associated Press.

OIP has argued the initial conviction was based on a case riddled with a lack of evidence, clearly coached statements from alleged victims and witnesses with credibility issues. It led to Smith receiving a 30-to-90 year prison sentence for a conviction of gross sexual imposition, rape, attempted rape and complicity to rape. 

Smith served 15 years of prison before being freed in 2009 when a Lorain County judge acquitted her of the charges after hearing arguments from OIP. The Ohio Supreme Court then reversed that ruling saying the judge lacked jurisdiction, but Smith was allowed to remain free after accepting a resentencing deal to avoid going back to prison.

Allen, 68, spent 23 years behind bars as a result of convictions stemming from the allegations of child sexual abuse.

“The case is part of what has become known as the ‘Satanic Panic’ cases,” says Godsey. “Individuals who worked at day care centers across the country during the 1990s were convicted of allegedly molesting young children in their care. It is now widely understood that many, if not most of these cases, involved false charges against innocent people, often made for financial gain from subsequent lawsuits against the daycare centers. Many of these wrongfully convicted individuals have been exonerated.”

Godsey says Smith’s exoneration wouldn’t be possible without support from Lorain County Prosecutor JD Tomlinson. OIP also worked closely with private investigators Martin Yant and Dr. Virginia Braden, and New York-based attorneys Sharon Katz of Davis Polk and William Pollak of O’Melveny.

The OIP has now freed 34 innocent Ohioans who together served nearly 675 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.

Learn more about Smith and OIP.

Featured image of Nancy Smith at an Ohio Innocence Project event was taken by UC Creative + Brand.

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