After serving more than 25 years in Ohio prisons, Joseph Fears was exonerated through DNA testing and freed in March 2009. Fears was convicted in 1984 of committing two rapes, both of which he says he didn’t commit. DNA testing conducted in 2008 as part of a comprehensive review of cases by the Franklin County District Attorney’s office proved Fears’ innocence in one of the rapes. His conviction was vacated and dismissed in that case, and, although tests were inconclusive in the other case, he was released on parole in that case.
Joseph Fears was charged with rape in two attacks that allegedly happened nine days apart in 1983.
In the first attack, a woman left a bar with a man she believed to be an acquaintance named Ron (Fears’ middle name is Ronald). The man drove the victim to a remote location, where he punched her and threatened her with a knife. She passed out during the attack. She regained consciousness later and went to police to report the crime. She told them she didn’t know if she had been raped. She was taken to the hospital, where her injuries were treated. A rape kit was collected and sperm cells were identified. Since the victim said she had not had consensual sex for two weeks, investigators was believed that she had been raped and that the sperm cells were from the perpetrator.
The second victim was an acquaintance of Fears’ who claimed that he had forced her to perform oral sex and raped her vaginally while they were together in her apartment.
In the first case, Fears acknowledged meeting the victim at a bar that evening but denied leaving with her. He said he had gone to another bar without her, but alibi witnesses could not confirm his claim.
In the second case, Fears admitted being in the woman’s apartment and said he did hit her and rip her underwear but did not rape her.
Fears was tried separately in 1984 for the two attacks.
At the trial for the first crime, the victim identified Fears as her assailant and said that she had given Fears the keys to her car that evening because she had been drinking too much at the bar to drive safely. Although Fears did not testify, he told police that he had seen the victim at the bar but had not left with her. The victim’s cousin and another bar patron testified that Fears and the victim left the bar together.
In the second case, the victim testified that Fears had attacked her in her bedroom, forcing her to perform oral sex before he raped her. Fears testified in his own defense at the trial, saying that he had gone to the victim’s apartment to retrieve his keys. He admitted struggling with her when she made advances to him and ripping her underwear but denied raping her. The victim’s roommate had been present in the apartment but declined to testify.
At each trial, Fears was convicted of all charges by the juries. He was sentenced to a total of 15 to 75 years of imprisonment.
Post-conviction Appeals and Exoneration
In 1984 and 1985, Fears lost appeals of his convictions in both crimes. He filed an application for DNA testing in 2004, but was denied because the evidence was believed to have been destroyed, according to an internal document at the District Attorney’s office.
After Robert McClendon, another inmate from the Columbus area, was proven innocent by DNA testing in 2008, Franklin County prosecutor Ron O’Brien ordered a comprehensive inventory of the county’s evidence room and possible wrongful conviction cases in his jurisdiction. A rape kit from the first assault for which Fears was convicted and underwear from the second case were located and subsequently tested. Tests on semen from the rape kit yielded a male DNA profile and excluded Fears as a possible perpetrator. A check against the national DNA database identified the source of the DNA as a deceased former Michigan prisoner who was determined to be in the Columbus, Ohio, area at the time of the rape in question. No male DNA was detected on the underwear from the second case.
On March 10, 2009, Joseph Fears was fully exonerated of the first crime and released from custody. The conviction in his other case still stands, but Fears’ lawyers are appealing that conviction as well. Because of time served, Fears was released on parole for that crime at the time of his exoneration in the first case.
For more information on his case, see the Ohio Innocence Project press release and coverage from the Columbus Dispatch.