Article 25

The First Preview Article from the Pre-Launch Edition

In Uncategorized on 07/21/2011 at 8:09 pm

All We Want to Know is the Truth’

Innocence Project wins a new trial for murder suspect

By Margo Pierce ( )

Thanks to the Ohio Innocence Project, Bryant “Rico” Gaines will get a new murder trial. After a three-judge panel in the 1st District Court of Appeals learned what the Innocence Project had uncovered – a new witness came forward a year after the crime, the prosecution’s only eyewitness recanted his testimony and a closer look at forensic evidence proved the eyewitness testimony wrong – the case was sent back to Hamilton County Common Pleas Court for reconsideration of Gaines’s request for a new trial.

Judge Nadine Allen granted the motion Feb. 10. Even though he’s still in jail, Gaines is once again a suspect entitled to the presumption of innocence, according to Karla Hall, the staff attorney for the Ohio Innocence Project who defended the case.

New trials are rare in Ohio: Nobody in the criminal-justice system wants to admit the possibility that the wrong person is in jail and that the real murderer was allowed to go free.

“Prosecutors, in my experience, are a lot more interested in defending their convictions than actually seeking the truth post-conviction,” Hall says. “There’s not really a way in our system for self-correction – and that, as a citizen, is upsetting to me.”

Hall, who has worked for the Innocence Project for almost four years, says the organization is “dedicated solely to the truth.”

“All we want to know is the truth,” she says. “We are searching for the truth in every case. If it turns out that our client is in fact guilty, then absolutely they should be held accountable for the crime. I personally can’t imagine how I’d feel if we got a guilty person out of jail and they committed another crime. That’s the opposite of what we want to happen. We want all the guilty people to be held accountable. We want all the innocent people to be free. It’s that simple.”

‘It’s shocking’


Gaines was convicted of shooting his cousin, Eugene Bradshaw, the night of Sept. 7, 2003. Lonnell Dickey confessed to firing two bullets into the base of Bradshaw’s skull, one of which severed his spinal column, killing him. Dickey said from the beginning that Gaines wasn’t involved, even though he refused to identify the second shooter. Two eyewitnesses place Gaines inside the apartment building when the shooting took place on the front lawn. But the eyewitness testimony of Bradshaw’s younger brother, Brandon Mincy – the only person who claimed Gaines was the second shooter – swayed a jury to convict him.

Gaines was sentenced to 15 years to life for a murder he claims he didn’t commit. His mother contacted the Innocence Project on her son’s behalf. But before an investigation could be opened, Gaines had to make the request, fill out a questionnaire and participate in a preliminary investigation with law students from the Innocence Project, who do most of the groundwork work in any of the 300–350 requests made each year.

“Our agreements are such with our clients that, if during the course of our investigation, we become aware of information that leads us to believe they are guilty of the crime, we discontinue our involvement in the case,” Hall says. “Any DNA reports that link our clients with a crime are given to the prosecutor, to the parole board. “

In the Gaines case, it wasn’t DNA that resulted in a new trial. It was Mincy’s recantation of his testimony identifying Gaines as the second shooter. But there was more.

“A closer examination of the ballistics evidence and the testimony of the coroner indicates that the crime could not have possibly have happened the way that Brandon Mincy testified,” Hall says. “That was just physically impossible if the coroner’s testimony and the ballistics expert testimony were true – and we assume they both are.

“The other piece of evidence that was crucial … was the testimony of a new witness who came forward, who was an older man who lived across the street, who had seen the whole thing but did not want to get involved in the trial. The police had not uncovered him as a witness, so his testimony was completely new. He’d seen it, but like many people who live in neighborhoods where shootings happen, was too afraid to get involved. He had children and still lived in the area.”

Add all that to the witnesses who testified Gaines was with them when the killing took place, and the original case looks flimsy at best. Hall had hoped that the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s office would agree and not try to prosecute Gaines again. But prosecutors filed an appeal March 11, not challenging the veracity of the evidence the courts considered, but citing a technicality in Allen’s ruling.

“When the court announced its decision, it stated an incorrect standard as the basis of its decision,” the appeal says.

The fact that the prosecutors’ appeal relies on a technicality – with little evidence to re-convict Gaines – bothers Hall. It takes little proof to take someone’s freedom, she says.

“What I did not realize before I took this job is how many cases there are where people are incarcerated, often for life, on evidence that is either suspect or so minimal it’s shocking to think someone can be incarcerated for life on just that tiny bit of evidence,” Hall says. “I come from a background where none of my close family members are incarcerated. I was not that familiar with the criminal justice system. I had no idea there were this many potentially innocent people in prison.”

‘Be vigilant’

With an executive director, one full-time attorney, two part-time attorneys, one support-staff person and about 20 law students per academic year, the Ohio Innocence Project has processed over 5,000 requests for assistance since its inception in 2003. In the early days there was only one lawyer and fewer students.

With a track record of 10 people released – either exonerated or granted clemency based on evidence of actual innocence presented to the governor or the parole board – Hall says the DNA cases are the “easiest” to win because the science can be clearly defined and understood. The trick is getting over the hurdles put in place to discourage post-conviction testing

“No one wants to listen,” she says. “When I say ‘no one,’ that’s a stretch. There actually are some prosecutors in the state of Ohio who care very deeply and who, if we can bring a reasonable argument, will entertain the thought of agreeing to do some mutual investigation. Unfortunately, no one in Hamilton County has that attitude, at least yet.”

Of the 88 county prosecutors’ offices and more than 800 police departments in Ohio, only a few are willing to consider the possibility that an innocent person might have been convicted of a crime, according to Hall.

“They feel they’ve done their job and feel they’ve got the right person and feel they’ve moved on,” she says. “But I will say there are a number of police officers and prosecutors who have worked with us fairly extensively if we can bring to them evidence that indicates they might have the wrong person.

“We love Lucas County. Since I’ve been here, they’ve been one of the most reasonable prosecutors’ offices to deal with. They’re certainly no push-over, but if you bring them a reasonable argument or make a reasonable DNA request, they’re willing to entertain it.”

Dubbed “Project 262” in honor of the Ohio Senate bill which improved the post-conviction DNA law, the Innocence Project launched an ambitious campaign to get testing for 30 cases across the state. Of those, there were three exonerations, six with inconclusive test results, two proven guilty again and four had testing denied with all appeals exhausted. The remaining 15 are still in litigation or in some phase of testing.

Hall would like to see more people make “innocent until proven guilty” a priority.

”Be vigilant citizens as citizens,” she says. “Investigate candidates who are running for prosecutors, judge, sheriff and get to know as much as you can about them.

“It’s a popular to thing to run on the basis of ‘I’m a law-and-order guy.’ That’s great – I want law and order, but I want to make sure they are law-and-order guys who are adamantly seeking the truth, not just adamantly seeking convictions or election.”

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