On May 28, 1981, two men and a woman held up a pawn shop in Cleveland, Ohio. Lawrence Botnick, the owner of the pawn shop, was killed. His son, Bruce Botnick, was wounded.
Police identified two of the robbers as Wendell Johnson and Monika Henderson, and both turned themselves in. Johnson pled guilty to first-degree murder and robbery and was sentenced to life in prison. Henderson agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and agreed to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter in return for a sentence of four to 25 years in prison.
Johnson and Henderson identified the third robber as a man they said they knew by the alias “Road Dog.” An indictment was returned by a grand jury naming the defendant only as “Road Dog.”
A few years later, police determined that Ronald Larkins, who had an extensive record of convictions for drug offenses, robbery, theft, forgery and assault, had used the nickname “Road Dog.” By the time police connected Larkins to the nickname, Larkins had been arrested and convicted of robbery and was in prison in Colorado. Larkins fought an attempt by Ohio authorities to extradite him, arguing that he had been misidentified as “Road Dog.”
In 1986, Larkins was paroled from prison in Colorado and he was transferred to Ohio where he was indicted on charges of first-degree murder, attempted murder and aggravated robbery.
In September 1986, Larkins went on trial in Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas before a judge who heard the case without a jury. The prosecution’s two main witnesses were Henderson and another woman, Mary Carter, who said she had been present at a meeting where Johnson, Henderson and Larkins planned the robbery.
Bruce Botnick testified that he saw two black men come into the store at about 2 p.m., one carrying a bag and a pistol. One man raised the pistol and announced a robbery. Botnick said he drew his own pistol around from behind the counter. He said that just as he pulled the trigger, he was shot in the head. There were several more gunshots and the robbers fled. Botnick said that when the shooting stopped, he found his father had been killed.
Carter, who was not charged with the crime, testified that she had traveled from Grand Rapids, Michigan with Johnson and Larkins a couple of weeks prior to the robbery and that she was present when they discussed the robbery. At the last minute, Carter said Johnson and Larkins decided to take Henderson, who was not present for the planning, instead of her.
Carter testified that when they returned later that day, Johnson had been shot in the arm. According to Carter, she and Larkins took a bus out of Cleveland to Denver that night. In 1982, Carter turned herself into police in Grand Rapids where she was wanted on a forgery charge. She gave a statement implicating Larkins in the planning of the robbery at that time. On cross-examination, Carter admitted she had been a heavy drug user at the time of the robbery and that she had no personal knowledge of what happened at the pawn shop.
Henderson testified that she was introduced to Larkins about two weeks prior to the robbery and that he went by the name “Road Dog.” She said she accompanied Johnson and Larkins to the pawn shop and although she was supposed to wait in the car, she went in anyway and saw Larkins announce the robbery. When gunfire erupted, she said she fled on foot. Henderson said she met up with Johnson later that day and they drove to Benton Harbor, Michigan. She turned herself in to authorities in December 1981, she said. Henderson denied that she had received favorable treatment in return for her testimony.
On October 1, 1986, the judge convicted Larkins of first-degree murder, attempted murder and aggravated robbery. Larkins was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
After his conviction was upheld on appeal, Larkins filed a post-conviction motion for the police files in his case. That request was denied by the trial court and the case ultimately made its way to the Ohio Supreme Court, which, in 1994, ruled that the records were not subject to a public records request. The court held that the “chaos” of releasing records like those that Larkins sought could not “be permitted to continue.” The court held that the records were unavailable as public records.
Several years later, Bishop Alfred Nickles, a supporter of Larkins’ claim of innocence, filed a public records request with the police department and inexplicably, the records were released.
The records revealed that extensive evidence pointing to Larkins’ innocence had been withheld from his defense attorney. Those records included a description of the robbers given by eyewitnesses that did not match Larkins; a description of “Road Dog,” that did not match Larkins; a report showing that a witness, Sonja Belcher, who was present when the robbery was planned, did not identify Larkins as one of the planners; records showing that Henderson named Larkins only after the police told her that Larkins was known by the nickname “Road Dog;” and evidence that Henderson lied on the stand concerning her past criminal convictions. Further, the records showed that Henderson lied when asked whether the state had promised her anything in exchange for her testimony. The records revealed that the prosecutor had written a letter on her behalf to the parole board, indicating that he promised her that he “would do everything possible to help her get off parole” because she was initially reluctant to testify at Larkins’ trial.
Larkins then filed a motion for a new trial based on the withheld exculpatory evidence. The motion was granted but the state appealed. In 2003, the state’s appeal was rejected and the new trial ruling was upheld. In March 2003, Larkins was released on bond pending a new trial.
Larkins then filed a motion to dismiss the charges as a sanction for the prosecution’s misconduct in failing to disclose the exculpatory evidence. The motion was granted and the charges were dismissed on December 29, 2004. The prosecution appealed the order and the dismissal was upheld by the Ohio Court of Appeals on January 12, 2006.
– Maurice Possley