Innocence Project Reveals Key Find in Elkins Case

The Ohio Innocence Project today announced a major development in the case of Clarence Elkins – one of such significance that the project hopes it will lead to Elkins’ quick release from prison.

In an announcement in Akron – the town where Elkins was tried in a 1998 murder/rape case – Ohio Innocence Project representatives and defense counsel for Elkins revealed that DNA evidence obtained from another man, Earl Mann, was a match with DNA found on the body of the murder victim and her 6-year-old granddaughter.

No physical evidence, DNA or otherwise, has ever linked Elkins to the crime scene in Barberton, Ohio, where 58-year-old Judith Johnson was raped and murdered and her granddaughter was also beaten unconscious and raped.

Elkins was the son-in-law of Johnson and is an uncle of the younger victim.

The Ohio Innocence Project, based out of the Rosenthal Institute for Justice at the UC College of Law and utilizing the efforts of UC law students, has been investigating Elkins’ claims of innocence for the last year. Earlier this year, they went forward with a motion to get Elkins a new trial, based on the fact that DNA analysis from the crime scene showed no connection to Elkins. The Summit County Court of Common Pleas denied that motion, with that decision now on appeal.

In the meantime, those advocating for Elkins – the Ohio Innocence Project, Akron attorney Jana DeLoach and Elkins’ family, led by his wife, Melinda – redoubled their efforts to identify the true perpetrator of the crime. Those efforts paid off when Elkins himself – ironically incarcerated at the same facility as Earl Mann – was able to recover a cigarette butt containing Mann’s DNA.

Mann, a convicted child molester known to be in the area when the crime was committed, was already in a small pool of suspects that Elkins’ advocates were looking at as the true perpetrator of the crime. When DNA analysis was performed, it indicated Mann was a match for samples obtained from both victims.

"As a result of the efforts of the defense team, the true perpetrator of these crimes has now been identified beyond a reasonable doubt through DNA testing and other evidence," said Mark Godsey, UC associate professor of law and faculty director for the Ohio Innocence Project. "This individual is Earl Mann."

UC law students David Laing, Scott Evans, Un Kyong Ho and Meghan Anderson all worked on Elkins’ case. "It has been a great experience working with Clarence, and meeting his family," said Evans, who along with Laing helped pursue the DNA end of the case. "We know we’re working to free an innocent man, and at the same time, getting a great science background."

Others who assisted the defense team include Martin Yant, a private investigator out of Columbus, and attorneys working pro bono at the Cleveland law firm of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey and the New York City firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges.

Elkins’ conviction came primarily on the strength of testimony by his niece, who told the authorities that her attacker resembled her uncle. However, she only saw the man in the dark, and she has since recanted any assertion that it may have been her uncle.

Earl Mann bears a physical resemblance to Clarence Elkins. Unfortunately, during the time when investigators settled their focus on Elkins as the perpetrator, Mann went on to commit several more crimes.

"Although Mann’s status as a sex offender and proximity to the crime scene should have made him an obvious suspect, the police made up their minds that Clarence Elkins was the perpetrator within hours of when the crimes occurred, with little to no investigation, and Mann was able to flee the vicinity," says Godsey. "As a result, not only has Elkins spent seven years in prison as an innocent man, but Mann was able to commit additional crimes of violence upon young girls in the community, including multiple counts of rape and gross sexual imposition."

Further proceedings in this case based on the new evidence are now under consideration by Summit County authorities. In the wake of the news of Earl Mann’s DNA match, the major newspaper in the area, the Akron Beacon-Journal, has come out with an editorial calling for Elkins to be freed.

Said Godsey: "This was a true team effort. Many people came together to make this day happen. The true heroes, however, are Melinda and Clarence Elkins.

"Melinda has been tireless in trying to bring justice to her mother, Judith Johnson, to her niece, and to her husband, Clarence Elkins. She has led the fight from Day One. She was able to do something that the police and prosecutors were not able to do -- solve this crime. We knew she would not stop until she accomplished this. Clarence has been an inspiration to all of us with how he has handled this bizarre turn of events in his life with grace and dignity. We are overjoyed for both Melinda and Clarence that this day has come."

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