Early on the morning of June 7, 1998, Judith Johnson, a 58-year-old grandmother in Barberton, Ohio, was beaten, raped and killed, and Brook Sutton, her 6-year-old granddaughter who was staying at her house, was beaten, raped and left for dead.
Several hours later Brook Sutton regained consciousness, called a neighbor and left a message on the answering machine that “someone killed my grandmother.” She then made it over to another neighbor’s house, and was eventually driven home. When the police came and interrogated her, she said that the killer “looked like Uncle Clarence” – Mrs. Johnson’s 35-year-old son-in-law, Clarence Elkins.
No physical evidence connected Elkins to the crime. Limited DNA testing showed that hairs found on Johnson’s body did not come from Elkins.
Nonetheless, in 1999, Clarence Elkins was convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to life in prison on the basis of his niece’s identification, which she repeated in court.
Clarence’s wife, Melinda Elkins, never doubted his innocence. She was determined to free him and find her mother’s real killer. With money borrowed from her family, she hired a private investigator and began to reinvestigate the crime herself, looking for other suspects.
Three years after the murder, Melinda Elkins reconciled with her sister – Brook Sutton’s mother – who had been convinced that Clarence Elkins was guilty.
Brook herself now changed her story. She remembered that the killer had brown eyes, while her uncle Clarence had blue eyes, and she was convinced that she had been wrong when she identified him at trial. Based on that recantation, Elkins’ lawyers asked for a new trial.
The prosecution continued to express complete confidence in Elkins’ guilt. They ridiculed Brook Sutton’s change of heart, asserted that she had been coached by her family, and pointed out that Elkins’ attorneys had the girl hypnotized, a procedure known to distort memory, especially in children.
In 2002 the judge who presided over Elkins’ conviction denied a new trial.
In 2004, with the help of the Ohio Innocence Project, Melinda Elkins obtained DNA tests on traces of biological material that had been recovered from Mrs. Johnson’s vagina, from under her fingernails, and from her granddaughter’s underwear. They found the same male DNA profile in all three locations; in other words, one man – the rapist and murderer – was the source of all three samples.
It was not Clarence Elkins.
The prosecutors, however, continued to insist that Elkins was guilty. In July, 2005, a judge again denied a motion for a new trial. He ruled that because the original verdict was based on Brook Sutton’s identification rather than on DNA evidence, this new evidence, had it been presented to the jury, would not have changed the outcome.
Melinda Elkins next turned her attention to a neighbor who had driven Brook Sutton home after she had been raped and beaten, leaving the dazed and blood-covered six-year-old girl on her porch for 30 minutes instead of calling the police immediately.
She discovered that the neighbor’s common law husband was Earl Mann, a violent criminal who had recently been released from prison at the time of the attack, and who had since been convicted and imprisoned for raping three girls under the age of 10.
As luck would have it, Earl Mann was transferred to the same prison and then to the same cell block as Clarence Elkins. Melinda Elkins instructed her husband to surreptitiously collect a DNA sample. Several weeks later, Elkins retrieved a cigarette butt that Mann discarded and mailed it to his attorneys. DNA in the saliva on the butt was a perfect match to the crime scene evidence.
Despite the DNA evidence identifying Earl Mann as the killer, the district attorney whose office prosecuted Elkins refused to agree to his release.
Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, who had no direct authority over the case, held a press conference to pressure the local prosecutor to dismiss the charges. Finally, after another round of DNA testing again confirmed Mann’s guilt, Clarence Elkins was released on December 15, 2005.
On June 29, 2007, Earl Mann was indicted for the rape of Brook Sutton, and for the rape and murder of Judith Johnson. In August, 2008, he pled guilty to aggravated murder, attempted murder, aggravated burglary and rape and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
In November 2010, the city of Barberton agreed to settle a lawsuit brought against four police officers involved in the investigation and prosecution of Elkins for $5.25 million.