CLEVELAND (AP) — A judge on Monday tossed out murder convictions for three men who spent 20 years in prison in a case that started unraveling when attorneys learned a top county prosecutor deliberately hid witness statements casting doubt on their guilt.
The men, Laurese Glover, Derrick Wheatt and Eugene Johnson, were convicted as teenagers in January 1996 for the fatal shooting of 19-year-old Clifton Hudson in East Cleveland but denied killing him. Johnson and Wheatt received sentences of 18 year to life, and Glover was sentenced to 15 years to life.
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Nancy Margaret Russo released the men from prison in March 2015 and, for a second time, ordered a new trial after attorneys for the Ohio Innocence Project found a letter written by first assistant county prosecutor Carmen Marino in 1998 telling East Cleveland police to withhold the investigative file from attorneys filing an appeal of the convictions.
Marino's letter instead directed police to send the file to him. The judge, during the March 2015 hearing, called Marino's letter a "deliberate, willful and malicious suppression" of evidence.
The file contained reports with witness statements that identified someone other than Johnson as Hudson's killer in February 1995. Glover and Wheatt were charged with murder because they were seen in a vehicle along with Johnson near where Hudson was fatally shot.
East Cleveland police turned the case file and the Marino letter over to the Innocence Project in late 2013.
A spokesman for the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office said Monday that it would be too difficult to retry the case after the prosecution's only eyewitness during the 1996 trial, a 14-year-old girl, recanted her trial testimony in 2004. That's when the judge first ordered a new trial for the men, which an appeals court overturned when prosecutors objected. The 8th District Court of Appeals in Cleveland upheld the judge's more recent trial order earlier this year.
Court documents show the girl initially told police she didn't get a good look at the man who shot Hudson. The next day, however, she identified Johnson from a photo lineup, and during a 1996 trial she testified he killed Hudson.
The investigative file contained statements from two brothers, ages 8 and 9, who said they saw the shooter emerge from a post office parking lot and not from the nearby Ford Bronco with Johnson, Wheatt and Glover inside. The file also includes a report about threats made against Hudson and his brother before the shooting that might have aided the men's defense.
Cleveland attorney Carmen Naso, who worked with the Innocence Project to exonerate Glover, Wheatt and Johnson, called Monday a "glorious day for the legal justice system."
The men should be eligible to receive payments from a state wrongful-conviction fund, Naso said.
Marino, the prosecutor who hid the evidence file, couldn't be reached for comment by telephone.