Ohio Innocence Project Joins Freed Inmates in Thanking Fairfield DNA Center Through On-Site Visit

It was a day of open emotionality on Thursday, as people who have had life-changing impacts on each other at a distance met in person for the first time.

The occasion was a visit by Robert McClendon and Joseph Fears to DNA Diagnostics Center (DDC) in Fairfield, the facility that performed the DNA testing that set the stage for McClendon to be released from prison last August after serving 18 years for a crime he did not commit. McClendon’s release indirectly set in motion a chain of events – again hinging on DNA evidence – that resulted in Fears’ release from prison last week after he served 25 years.

Both McClendon and Fears had turned for help with their plights to the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP), based at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. There, UC law students worked on the legal aspects of preparing their cases and setting the stage for the DNA testing.

Representatives from OIP accompanied McClendon and Fears as they met Dr. Ellen Moscovitz, the president and CEO of DDC, Dr. Julie Heinig, DDC’s assistant laboratory director in charge of forensics, and other key DDC personnel.

Heinig in particular oversaw almost all of the DNA testing in McClendon’s case. “This is such a humbling experience for me,” McClendon said later, in addressing a gathering of DDC personnel in the company’s lunchroom. “I know that this could not have happened without a joint effort.”

McClendon was the first of 30 cases identified in a joint project between the OIP and the Columbus Dispatch newspaper to be processed through DDC. The joint project sought to identify cases of current inmates that could be decisively determined through DNA advances.

DDC has agreed to perform all of the DNA testing pro bono in those cases, the largest commitment of services that any Innocence Project in the country has ever received. “Since this movement started 15 years ago, no other lab has stepped up to this level in any other state,” OIP Faculty Director Mark Godsey said. “There has been no other example of corporate citizenship rising to this level.”

McClendon and Fears shared embraces with DDC leadership upon arriving at the firm’s headquarters, which employs 200 people and completes 80 percent of the DNA testing done in the United States.

Robert McClendon, left, and Joseph Fears are greeted by DDC personnel.

Robert McClendon, left, and Joseph Fears are greeted by DDC personnel.

After a tour of lab space where McClendon and Fears learned more about the science that played such a key role in their lives, the men spoke to an assembly of DDC personnel.

In introducing them, Moskovitz, DDC’s president and CEO, said, “These are two very special visitors. In prison as innocent men, they were leading lives that were in turmoil and agony. DDC is very committed to helping the Ohio Innocence Project with these efforts on these cases.”

McClendon said without the efforts of DDC and OIP, he would still probably have been in prison on Thursday, waiting for 2013 to arrive when he would have been released. Instead, he has been returned to family life, exulting in the joys of a large group of friends and family who supported his case.

The response from McClendon to freedom has been to do what he can to support others who are innocent but behind bars. When Fears was released last week, McClendon invited him in to live at his house, to help with his adjustment back into society. When Fears began to get emotional talking from the podium of things he had missed because of his imprisonment, McClendon poignantly came up and put a hand around his shoulder in support of his friend.

The two first became friends when they met in prison about 10 years ago.

“I remember one time when both of us went to Columbus together, and we were to go to court where they wanted to label us both sexual predators. We refused to go in, both of us sitting on the bench outside of that courtroom, and although there was plenty of yelling, they ended up having to take both of us back,” said McClendon, drawing laughter from those in attendance.

Robert McClendon and Joseph Fears

Robert McClendon and Joseph Fears

Fears’ reaction to Thursday’s visit was one of amazement.

“I am flabbergasted,” he said. “I had no idea all the work involved to clear just one man. So many people were involved. I really feel like the federal government needs to come together and make access to DNA testing mandatory under the law. It’s only part of the law now in 38 states, and it needs to be mandatory in every state.”

McClendon talked of starting a foundation to help those who had been wrongfully convicted, and to push for stronger evidence preservation laws in Ohio. It was only because evidence was still available years after the fact in both McClendon’s and Fear’s cases that their freedom was able to be secured now.

Said McClendon: “I was going to stick it out, no matter what. You would go in front of the parole board every five years (but he wasn’t going to admit to a crime he did not commit). Whether it meant another two years, another five years or whatever, the end result was going to be very sweet.”

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