Seventeen years after Robert McClendon was sentenced to life in prison for allegedly raping his own daughter, a joint investigation by the Ohio Innocence Project and the Columbus Dispatch led to DNA testing that proved his innocence and exonerated him of the crime. He was released from prison in August 2008.
The Crime and Identification
On April 25, 1990, a 10-year-old girl was allegedly abducted from her Columbus, Ohio, back yard. She said that a man grabbed her, pulled her over a fence, tied a sock around her eyes and put her in his car. He drove to a nearby abandoned house, took the girl inside and raped her on a couch.
After the assault, the man took the girl in his car to a convenience store and went inside. While he was inside, the girl jumped from the car and ran home. She didn’t tell her mother about the attack until the next day, when her mother noticed that she was acting and walking strangely. According to the mother’s testimony at McClendon’s trial, the girl said at this time that her biological father, Robert McClendon, had abducted and assaulted her the previous day.
The victim was taken to a hospital where a rape examination was conducted, and doctors confirmed that the girl had been assaulted. When asked in the hospital who had attacked her, the victim said “I think it was my dad but I may be wrong because my eyes were covered.” According to court documents, the victim had only seen McClendon once in her life before the day of the assault.
A limited lab test failed to identify the presence of semen on the swabs collected in the hospital or on the victim’s underwear. No DNA testing was performed.
McClendon was charged with kidnapping and rape in May 1990. While awaiting trial in early 1991, he took a lie-detector test on the condition that the results be admitted as evidence in court. A State Highway Patrol examiner found that his answers “could be a deliberate attempt at deception.” McClendon waived his right to a jury trial, and his bench trial began on August 26, 1991.
The main evidence against McClendon at trial were the testimony of his daughter, who identified McClendon as her attacker, and the state’s allegation that he had failed a polygraph examination. Defense lawyers presented alibi witnesses, who said McClendon was driving around with a friend at the time of the crime.
On August 28, 1991, Judge David L. Johnson found him guilty of rape and kidnapping. He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
Post-Conviction Appeal and Exoneration
In 2004, McClendon filed for DNA testing on evidence collected from the crime scene. Prosecutors opposed the testing, saying there was no evidence to test because tests in 1990 were negative for semen. McClendon then filed a motion in state court seeking DNA testing, but a Franklin County judge never responded to McClendon’s request.
In 2007 and 2008, the Ohio Innocence Project worked closely with reporters at the Columbus Dispatch to evaluate cases of Ohio defendants who claimed to be wrongfully convicted and had been denied access to DNA testing in the past. McClendon’s case was one of 30 chosen for representation by the Ohio Innocence Project and pro bono DNA testing by an Ohio lab. In response to requests from the Ohio Innocence Project, Franklin County prosecutors searched for the evidence in McClendon’s case and found that the rape kit had been lost or destroyed, but the victim’s underwear had been preserved. They agreed to conduct testing in April 2008. Three months later, test results came back showing that another man had committed the assault. McClendon was free on August 12, 2008 after serving nearly 17 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit.