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Isiah Andrews

Longest Exonerations
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At about 3 p.m. on September 18, 1974, a man discovered a woman’s body in some woods near a parking lot at Forest Hills Park on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio.

The woman wore a blue nightgown, a dressing gown, and a caftan, and all the garments were pushed above her waist. She had been stabbed in the neck, and was wrapped in blood-soaked hotel linens, including a towel, a bed spread, a pillowcase and a mattress cover. The pillowcase was labeled “Howard Johnson Motor Lodge,” and police found a second pillowcase, labeled for a different Howard Johnson, near the body.

Police also found 12 blood-soaked newspapers. They were all from the August 26, 1974, edition of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, which featured extensive coverage of a crackdown of prostitution in that part of the city. An officer would later testify that the blood on the newspapers tested positive for the victim’s blood. Investigators were able to lift a partial palm print off one of the newspapers.

Isiah Andrews and his wife, Regina, were staying at the Colonial House motel, about five miles west of the park. He returned to the motel sometime between 4 and 5 p.m. on September 18 and discovered Regina was gone. He asked a maid named Betty Worthy if she had seen her. Worthy said she hadn’t, but she suggested that it was possible that Regina had been picked up in a police raid, as several sex workers lived at the motel.

Andrews then called the police and reported his wife missing. Later, he called Regina’s family, and they came over to the motel. They filed a separate missing-person’s report. Regina’s body was positively identified as the woman in the park just after midnight on September 19. She was 24 years old.

Detectives with the Cleveland Police Department interviewed Andrews that day. He was 36 years old and had been recently released from federal prison after serving 15 years for murder. Andrews had been in the Marines, and he had shot and killed his drill sergeant after an argument. At the time of his wife’s death, he was also actively involved in the Black Muslim movement, which had been a source of tension between him and Regina.

Andrews told the police about his movements on September 18. He said he left the motel at about 8 a.m. to run some errands, then returned at around noon. Regina wasn’t there, but the television was on. Andrews left again, returning later in the afternoon to find his wife still missing.

Police again interviewed Worthy and a resident of the motel named Linda Cloud. Cloud was asked whether Isaiah and Regina Andrews ever fought. She said they didn’t, although they argued like everyone else. She also said that Regina Andrews had been visited by a light-skinned Black man on the night of September 17, when Isaiah Andrews wasn’t in the room, and the man stayed until Andrews returned. She also said that Andrews had left the motel at around 2:30 a.m. on September 18.

On September 21, Worthy told detectives that she saw Andrews talking to his wife in their room at around 11 a.m. on September 18. She said he then went inside the room and turned on some loud music. A few minutes later, he went to his car and opened the trunk and returned to the room. He then left, carrying a big bag over his shoulder that he put into the trunk of his car. Worthy said she saw Andrews at about 5 p.m. He was still wearing the same brown suit and dressed “very neatly.”

Worthy also said that the Colonial House used the same linen service as other hotels and motels. Occasionally, she said, they received mix-ups, including pillowcases and linens meant for area Howard Johnsons.

Police then re-interviewed Andrews. They arrested him on September 21, 1974, but the initial indictment was dismissed on procedural grounds on December 16, 1974. He was re-indicted on a charge of aggravated murder on January 24, 1975.

When Regina Andrews’s body had arrived – still unidentified – at the Cuyahoga County Coroner’s Office on the afternoon of September 18, Dr. Samuel Gerber did a quick assessment and estimated the time of death as between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. that day. An autopsy was performed on September 19 by Dr. Elizabeth Balraj. Her report said that Regina Andrews had been stabbed seven times in the neck and also received four cuts on her stomach. She also noted inconsistencies in the onset of rigor mortis and pushed forward the time of death to between 9 a.m. and noon on September 18. The office also performed a rape kit on Andrews, taking rectal, oral, and vaginal swabs. At the time of the murder, DNA testing was not yet available.

Andrews went to trial in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas in March 1975. There was no physical or forensic evidence tying him to his wife’s death. Gerber, Balraj, and Dr. Lester Adelson, a third pathologist with the coroner’s office, testified that they could not explain the discrepancies in the time-of-death estimates. Considering all the variables at play, they testified, Regina Andrews’s death could have occurred between midnight and 2 p.m. on September 18.

The state’s two key witnesses were Worthy and Cloud. While Cloud had initially told police that the arguments between Regina and Isaiah Andrews were unexceptional, now she testified that on the day before Regina died, Isaiah Andrews told his wife, “Bitch, you know I am going to kill you.” She acknowledged not telling the police this in her initial statements, but said she had recently been angered by a defense investigator who accused her of being a sex worker.

Worthy’s testimony was also more expansive than her initial statements to police. Now, she remembered Regina Andrews wearing a blue nightgown on the day of her death. She also claimed to have seen all the sheets stripped of the bed in the couple’s room. She admitted not telling police these details, in part because the first time she was interviewed, Regina Andrews was only reported missing.

A police officer who testified about some of the evidence did not mention the palm print, but said the newspapers had been processed and the results were “negative.”

Isaiah Andrews did not testify. His defense team presented evidence challenging the state’s time of death and the credibility of its witnesses. The jury convicted Andrews of aggravated murder on March 12, 1975, and he was sentenced to life in prison.

Andrews challenged his conviction, but his appeals were denied twice by Ohio’s Eighth District Court of Appeals in 1994 and 1996.

In 2015, the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati College of Law filed a public-records request with the Cleveland Police Department for the case file on Regina Andrews’s murder. The department did not respond. The organization then filed a second request, now copying the city’s Department of Law. Again, the city failed to respond.

In 2017, the Ohio Innocence Project filed an application for DNA testing of items from the sexual-assault kit. Prosecutors fought the motion, but on July 1, 2019, a judge ordered the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s office to conduct DNA testing on any biological material still in its possession, including fingernail scrapings, and the oral, vaginal, and rectal slides. The medical examiner’s office declined to perform the testing, so the parties agreed to use the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

The bureau emailed the state and defense asking for any examination notes from the original coroner’s report. When prosecutors responded, they sent a more extensive case file, which included the records Andrews had been seeking since 2015. The files showed police had arrested another man but then let him go after believing he had an alibi for the time of Regina Andrews’s death. (The rectal swabs submitted for testing testing didn’t show a DNA profile, and there was insufficient DNA in the vaginal swab to provide comparison.)

In a motion for a new trial filed on October 4, 2019, Brian Howe, Andrews’s attorney with the Ohio Innocence Project, said police had quickly focused on a man named Willie Watts.

According to police records, investigators went to the Howard Johnson’s on Euclid Avenue after finding the marked linens near Regina Andrews’s body. Officers asked a clerk about missing bedsheets, and the clerk said that Watts had taken bedsheets from the room he rented on the night of September 17. The clerk said that Watts had claimed to be from California, but his license check gave an address for a house about a quarter mile from where Regina Andrews’s body was found.

Police quickly went to the address, and they found two other officers already there. The house belonged to Watts’s mother, and she said she had called 911 because Watts had broken into her home and tried to steal things. She explained that he was AWOL from the military. She had recently bailed him out of the county jail and then kicked him out of the house on September 17.

The police would write in their report: “It is our opinion that this crime was committed by Willie H. Watts, who is apparently attempting to sell his mother’s coat and her other valuables to get money to get away from this city.”

Watts called the police on September 19 and said he would meet with them at his mother’s house. But he wasn’t there when the police arrived. They returned at 3:05 a.m. on September 20 and arrested Watts. He denied any involvement with the death, and he said he had alibi witnesses who could account for his whereabouts between 10:30 p.m. on September 17 through 10:30 p.m. on September 18. At the time, the coroner’s office had not told police about its new estimate of Regina Andrews’s time of death.

Detectives talked with Watts’s alibi witnesses, and they corroborated his account of the night. Police then released Watts.

By then, Andrews was also in police custody. Using that same time-of-death finding, police theorized that Andrews had moved his wife’s dead body from the room “under cover of darkness” in the early morning of September 18. This was backed up by Cloud’s initial statement that she had seen Andrews leave the motel at about 2:30 a.m. that day.

On September 21, the coroner’s office notified the police about its revised time of death, stating that Regina Andrews had died between 9 a.m. and noon on September 18. While Watts’s alibi didn’t cover that entire period, police never re-investigated him as a suspect.

Instead, they concentrated on Andrews and attempted to poke holes in his alibi for his movements on the morning of September 18. In a report, the police said his visits to a Nation of Islam organization, to a fish market, and then back to the motel were a coordinated effort to create an alibi for the time when he killed his wife. “In other words,” the report said, “this was done by him to diselusion (sic) the police.”

The motion for a new trial noted that Watts had other arrests involving assaults on women, and he was convicted in 1980 of felonious assault and arson, after police said he tried to burn down an ex-girlfriend’s house. He died in 2011.

Andrews should receive a new trial, the motion said, because the state had failed to turn over exculpatory evidence that pointed to an alternate suspect.

The state argued that there was no “direct evidence” that prosecutors had failed to turn over the police files that referenced Willie Watts. Failing that, it also said that Andrews’s trial attorney could have discovered this information with reasonable diligence.

In a response, Howe noted that in 1974, prosecutors did not provide written disclosures of exculpatory evidence. The requests were handled in off-the-record agreements between prosecutors and defense attorneys. But Andrews’s trial attorney described the agreement before the trial judge. He said he had been told that no traces of blood had been found in Andrews’s room or car, that Andrews’s statements to police contained a few inconsistencies, and that there was a non-disclosed witness whose name and address were not being released.

At the trial, the attorney asked one of the detectives about his notation in a police report, and then asked for a copy of the report. The prosecutor objected, arguing that Andrews wasn’t entitled to the report. The judge sustained the objection. “There is no reason for the defense to have requested these Form 10 reports — or for the State to have so strongly objected to their disclosure — if the State had already disclosed them to the defense,” the response said.

Judge Robert McClelland of the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas vacated Andrews’s conviction and ordered a new trial on April 30, 2020. His order noted the state’s position that nothing connected Watts to Regina Andrews. Perhaps, McClelland said, Watts was the light-skinned man that Worthy said she saw, but it was impossible to say.

“There is no way of telling whether the information concerning Watts was withheld or simply ignored as irrelevant when he was eliminated as a suspect by the police,” McClelland wrote. “Regardless, the information was not in the hands of the defense team to make their own decision of whether it would provide a defense for their client.”

Andrews was released from prison and then from the Cuyahoga County Jail on May 5, 2020. He had served more than 45 years in prison.

Michael O’Malley, the prosecuting attorney for Cuyahoga County, offered to let Andrews plead guilty to a lesser charge to remove the threat of going back to prison if he was reconvicted. Andrews rejected the offer, saying he wanted justice for his wife. Andrews’s retrial began on October 19, 2021. Most of the original witnesses had died, and their testimony from the first trial was read into the record before jurors. The physical evidence in the case had been destroyed.

In a pre-trial motion, Marcus Sidoti, Andrews’s attorney, said that new exculpatory evidence was still being discovered. Prosecutors had recently disclosed a hand-written note on a police record that said Andrews had been excluded as the source of the palm print. The note was then crossed out. The document also contained a note that said, “Print not clear enough to compare.” The actual print was gone, and there were no witnesses to explain the seemingly contradictory statements. “If all evidence regarding the fingerprint analysis has been lost or destroyed, then the state’s case must be dismissed,” Sidoti wrote. “A comparison excluding Isaiah Andrews from the bloody palm print would have been extremely strong ‘materially exculpatory’ evidence.”

Sidoti alleged that the original prosecutor, Charles Laurie, misled the court when he told the trial judge, “The palm print, I don’t know whether they tied it in or not at this time ... I have ordered the police department to re-examine and re-evaluate and look and find if there is anything there. If there isn’t anything, to let me know, that is as far as prints, and when I find that out, I will tell you.”

During the retrial, the state presented no new evidence, but Sidoti took jurors through the police reports about the investigation into Watts, and how he was excluded as a suspect based on an incorrect estimate of the time of Regina Andrews’s death.

The jury acquitted Andrews on October 27, 2021. He was 83 years old, confined to a wheelchair, and in poor health. Sidoti said, “This was the right result today, but I don’t know if he’ll ever get actual justice.” Howe, with the Ohio Innocence Project, said, “He should have never been convicted in the first place and he certainly never should have been retried.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 11/15/2021
Last Updated: 11/15/2021
State:Ohio
County:Cuyahoga
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1974
Convicted:1975
Exonerated:2021
Sentence:Life
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:36
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No