On the afternoon of December 21, 1976, two armed African-American men robbed the Ohio National Bank in Columbus. One jumped over a teller’s cage and stole approximately $1,207, while the other grabbed 74-year-old security guard Berne Davis and shot him several times, killing him.
Timothy Howard and Gary Lamar James
, childhood friends, fell under suspicion when two eyewitnesses picked them out of a photo lineup. Shortly afterwards, the Columbus Dispatch published photos of the two men, identifying them as suspects. On December 23, they went to the police with alibis to attempt to clear their names. James had been at the optometrist with his girlfriend less than an hour after the robbery, and did not have enough money to pay for his glasses. Howard had been at home with his sister all day, but his sister would not sign a rights waiver until she could speak to an attorney, which was later used by prosecutors to impeach her testimony. Howard and James were arrested that day and charged with capital murder; they would remain in custody for the next 26 years.
The two men were tried separately in 1977. The prosecution argued that James had shot Davis while Howard robbed the teller, basing its case on eyewitness testimony identifying the two men as the perpetrators. Most of the eyewitnesses who testified had seen the pictures of Howard and James in the newspaper after the murder. There was no physical evidence linking either man to the crime, and the bank’s security camera had no film in it that day.
Eyewitnesses were generally less certain in their identification of Howard than in their identification of James, which may explain why at Howard’s trial, the prosecution bolstered its case by claiming that the day before the bank robbery, Howard and James had robbed a U-Haul rental store owned by a friend of Berne Davis’s. This claim was based entirely on the store owner’s testimony that Howard and James were the robbers. Post-conviction investigation uncovered a police report that contradicted this testimony, stating that after the robbery, the owner had been unable to pick out the perpetrators from a photo lineup.
Both men were convicted and sentenced to death in 1977 – James on March 12, and Howard on April 9. Their sentences were commuted to life in prison in 1978 after the Ohio death penalty statute under which they were sentenced was declared unconstitutional.
In 1978, James appealed to the Ohio 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, but the appeal was denied. Howard’s appeals to the Ohio Supreme Court were rejected in December 1978 and April 1982. Howard, however, vigorously pursued his claim of innocence, filing requests for case documents under the Freedom of Information Act and writing to attorneys, ministers and the media seeking help and information. In 1997, he persuaded the Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based non-profit that investigates wrongful convictions, to take on both his and James’s case.
Centurion, assisted by a private investigator, uncovered evidence that Howard and James had been convicted as a result of egregious police corruption, particularly on the part of detective Thomas Jones.
Investigation revealed that Jones had often falsified evidence and testimony in order to “solve” his cases; he was later thrown off the Columbus police force because of his misconduct. Jones had suppressed an enormous amount of evidence indicating that Howard and James were innocent.
Many eyewitness reports contradicted testimony that identified Howard and James as the perpetrators, and a Columbus police officer had lied when he testified that fingerprints found at the bank were smudged and could not be used; in fact, one fingerprint had been analyzed and did not match either Howard or James. The investigator also obtained an affidavit from an FBI agent who helped to convict Howard and James, stating that he had doubted their guilt since 1977, when two Cincinnati men – one of whom looked like James – were arrested for robbing another Ohio National Bank.
In December 2002, the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas held a hearing to consider this new evidence in Howard’s case, while attorneys continued to pursue a hearing for James. After the new evidence had been presented, the judge and prosecutors urged Howard to accept a bargain: he could plead no contest to manslaughter and be released for the time he had already served in prison. Howard adamantly refused to plead guilty to a crime he didn’t commit, choosing to remain in prison until his record could be cleared. On April 16, 2003, Howard’s conviction was overturned by the Court, and he was released on bond a week later, on April 23, 2003.
The Franklin County prosecutor immediately filed a motion to appeal, but after a wave of publicity surrounding the likely innocence of Howard and James, he decided to dismiss charges against both men. On July 17, 2003, James was released from prison after a lie detector test showed he was truthful in claiming not to have killed Davis or robbed the bank. On July 22, 2003, all charges against Howard and James were dismissed.
In 2006, Howard was awarded $2.5 million in compensation from the State of Ohio. He died shortly afterwards of a heart attack. In 2007, James was awarded $1.5 million.
- Alexandra Gross