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Clarence Elkins

Other Ohio Cases with Mistaken Witness Identifications
Early on the morning of June 7, 1998, Judith Johnson, a 58-year-old grandmother in Barberton, Ohio, was beaten, raped and killed, and Brooke Sutton, her 6-year-old granddaughter who was staying at her house, was beaten, raped and left for dead.

Several hours later, Brooke regained consciousness, called a neighbor and left a message on the answering machine that “someone killed my grandmother.” She then walked to another neighbor’s house and was driven home. When the police 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.

Three years after the murder, Brooke changed her account of what had occurred. She said she now remembered that the killer had brown eyes, while Clarence had blue eyes, and she said she had been wrong when she identified Clarence. Based on that recantation, Elkins’ lawyers asked for a new trial.

The prosecution maintained Elkins was guilty and ridiculed Brooke’s change of heart, asserting that she had been coached by her family. The prosecution also criticized Elkins’ attorneys for having the girl hypnotized, a procedure known to distort memory, especially in children.

In 2002, the judge who presided over Elkins’ conviction denied the petition for a new trial.

In 2004, with the help of the Ohio Innocence Project, DNA tests were performed on traces of biological material that had been recovered from Judith Johnson’s vagina, from under her fingernails, and from Brooke's underwear. The tests revealed the same male DNA profile in all three locations, indicating that the same man attacked both victims.

The DNA did not belong to 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 Brooke’s identification rather than on DNA evidence, this new scientific evidence, had it been presented to the jury, would not have changed the outcome.

The defense investigation then focused on the neighbor who had driven Brooke home after the attack and had left the dazed and blood-covered six-year-old on her porch for 30 minutes instead of calling the police immediately.

The investigation showed that the neighbor’s common-law husband at the time was Earl Mann, a violent criminal who had recently been released from prison at the time of the attack. In addition, Mann subsequently had been convicted and imprisoned for raping three girls under the age of 10.

After Mann was convicted, he had transferred initially to the same prison and then to the same cell block as Elkins. Elkins surreptitiously collected some of Mann's DNA by retrieving a cigarette butt that Mann discarded. Elkins mailed it to his attorneys and DNA tests were conducted on saliva on the butt. Mann's DNA profile matched the DNA profile obtained from the crime scene evidence.

Despite the DNA evidence identifying Earl Mann as the killer, the prosecution still refused to agree to Elkins' release.

Finally, in October 2005, 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. After another round of DNA testing again confirmed Mann’s guilt, Elkins was released on December 15, 2005.

On June 29, 2007, Earl Mann was indicted for the rape of Brooke, 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. The state of Ohio separately paid Elkins $1,075,000 in compensation.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempted Murder, Rape, Assault
Reported Crime Date:1998
Sentence:55 to Life
Age at the date of reported crime:35
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes