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Aaron Culbertson, Jr.

Other Ohio Exonerations
At around 2:45 p.m. on February 2, 2018, two men robbed 59-year-old D.F. of her purse at gunpoint as she was about to enter a tavern in Canton, Ohio.

D.F. initially told officers with the Canton Police Department that the men’s “hoods were pulled tight so it was hard to see their face.” She said that she thought both men were Black but couldn’t be sure.

An officer pulled a still photograph from the video footage of a surveillance camera outside the tavern. The photo showed two young Black men, one in a black hooded sweatshirt with a Nike swoosh, and the other with a camouflage hooded jacket. D.F. said these were the men who robbed her, and she identified the man wearing the Nike sweatshirt as the one who held the gun.

D.F.’s purse contained her cellphone but no money or credit cards. Within an hour after the robbery, D.F.’s daughter used a “find my phone” app to locate the phone in a neighborhood about a mile away. Police recovered the purse and phone and returned them to D.F. They conducted no testing for fingerprints or other evidence.

Using the surveillance photo, police created a so-called BOLO (Be On the Look Out) form for the two suspects. During this time, an unknown officer said that the young man with the Nike sweatshirt might be 16-year-old Aaron Culbertson Jr. Police had been looking for Culbertson since early January, when his family listed him as a runaway.

Police interviewed Culbertson’s father, Aaron Culbertson Sr., and they would later say in a report that he identified his son as the young man in the surveillance photo wearing the Nike sweatshirt.

Police arrested Culbertson Jr. on February 14, 2018. Police searched his belongings and found neither a weapon nor a black sweatshirt. Culbertson denied any involvement in the robbery. He said he did not know the man in the black sweatshirt but that he recognized the young man in the camouflage jacket from McKinley High School. He said he did not know the person’s full name but identified him as either “Kimble” or “Kimmy.”

When police said they could recover fingerprints or DNA from the stolen property, Culbertson quickly agreed to provide samples to compare against the evidence.

Because of Culbertson’s age, he was initially charged as a juvenile. The state moved to try him as an adult, and a hearing was held on March 18, 2018. Although Culbertson had been arrested a month earlier, D.F. had never made a direct identification. Instead, up to this point, D.F. had identified the men in the surveillance photo as the robbers, and others had said Culbertson was one of the people in that photo.

At the hearing, D.F. identified Culbertson as the man in the Nike sweatshirt who had robbed her at gunpoint. Under cross-examination, D.F. said that she had been unable to provide basic descriptions of the robbers in her initial interview with police, but she claimed that her memory improved after she had time to think about it.

Culbertson’s attorney asked her: “And didn’t you report to the officers that you weren’t sure if these were African Americans or Caucasians because you couldn’t tell?”

She responded: “At the time I couldn’t tell, but after I thought about it and reflected for days it seemed that they were African American.”

Separately, Culbertson’s father testified at the hearing that he had not identified his son in the surveillance photo.

After the hearing, Culbertson was charged as an adult with aggravated robbery.

His jury trial in the Stark County Court of Common Pleas began on November 13, 2018. D.F. again identified Culbertson as the gunman in the robbery, and now she testified with more certainty. She said she got a “good look” at the face of the man with the Nike sweatshirt and that “his eyes and eyebrows were very distinctive to me.”

Under cross-examination, D.F. again testified about her initial uncertainty regarding the race of the robbers, but she said her identifications became more certain after seeing the surveillance photo:

Q: Okay. The first time that anyone asked you to identify Aaron Culbertson outside of these pictures was in a courtroom; isn’t that correct?

A: Yes.

Q: And that was after someone had given you his name and told you [that] you were coming to court to testify against the person that robbed you; isn’t that correct?

A: Yes.

Q: And in that hearing Mr. Culbertson was the only African-American boy sitting next to me, the only African-American boy in the courtroom; isn’t that correct?

A: Boys, um-hum. Boy, yes.

Two Canton police officers also testified about the investigation and D.F.’s initial statement. One officer testified that D.F. had initially given a barebones description of the robbers, with no mention of distinctive eyes or eyebrows.

The other officer, Detective Terry Monter, testified that the department’s interest in Culbertson came from the BOLO form and information that Culbertson was staying with friends a few blocks from the bar. The officer testified that police never showed D.F. a photo array.

He said: “From the information that I received when I did receive it, I did not believe that the victim seen [sic] the suspect’s full face due, due to the fact of where she was positioned in the car and where the incident occurred. So the information that I learned that most time [sic] that, that that’s not worth the information to do a photo lineup when the person does not actually see the person’s full face because that’s what you’re looking at in a photo lineup is their full face.”

Monter testified that Culbertson had told him that he recognized the person in the camouflage jacket from McKinley High. “It was like a Kimble or a Kimby, but we could not find anything that matched at that time that went to McKinley,” Monter said. He also testified that he never received any information that a young man named Alonzo Stinson Jr. was involved in the robbery.

The state also called two women, Christine Blubaugh, and her daughter, Jennifer Blubaugh. Culbertson was a friend of Jennifer’s son, and he had been staying at their house around the time of the robbery. Each woman testified that they tentatively identified Culbertson from the surveillance photo as the person in the Nike sweatshirt, although neither said they were certain in their identification.

Culbertson’s girlfriend, Raven Owens, testified on his behalf. She said that she and Culbertson were out shopping at the time of the robbery on February 2, 2018. She testified that she remembered the date well because they got in a big fight the next day. She also testified that she looked at the surveillance photo and that Culbertson was not the person in that photo.

Culbertson testified and denied participating in the robbery. He said he was with Owens and that he did not own a gun and had never even held a gun.

He testified that he believed Stinson was the person in the camouflage jacket. When asked how he knew, Culbertson said he “asked a couple people around that went to my school and they said that they knew what had happened.” Culbertson said he passed this information onto the state, but he did not think that the police or prosecutors investigated further.

Culbertson’s attorney had placed Stinson on the defense witness list and obtained a photo of Stinson from Facebook, but he did not call Stinson as a witness or ask D.F. to look at the photo. In closing arguments, he said the state had failed to properly investigate the crime.

“Aaron Culbertson provides the State a name and a picture, not just a name but a picture of the individual believed to be the boy in the black sweatshirt,” the attorney said. “That’s never provided to the detective. He comes up with a picture of an individual. He gives it to the Prosecutor. And where does that go? It sits in the Prosecutor’s file and is never given to a detective. Ask yourself why. If we are really trying to get to the truth, why are we not following up with a name and a picture of an individual that was believed to have actually committed this crime?”

The jury convicted Culbertson of aggravated robbery on November 15, 2018, and he was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Culbertson appealed his conviction, arguing both that the trial court erred in allowing D.F.’s identification and that his attorney was ineffective for failing to suppress the identification. Ohio’s Fifth District Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction on March 9, 2020.

Culbertson then pursued a second round of appeals, filing a motion for post-conviction relief on September 21, 2020 that asserted many of the claims made in his initial appeal. Judges in Stark County and at the appellate level dismissed the appeal, ruling that the petition was untimely and had rehashed issues already decided.

In 2021, the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati College of Law began representing Culbertson. During its initial investigation of Culbertson’s case, law students working with the organization located several public images of Stinson. Working from Stinson’s social-media contacts, the students were then able to locate another young man named Lakim Woody, whose Facebook profile listed him as “La Kimmy.” Woody appeared to resemble the man in the camouflage jacket.

At the time, both Stinson and Woody were in prison. Stinson had pled guilty in 2021 to several felonies related to shooting a gun into a woman’s home. Woody had pled guilty to rape, aggravated robbery and kidnapping in 2019.

Attorneys with the Ohio Innocence Project then presented their findings to the office of Stark County Prosecuting Attorney Kyle Stone, which conducted its own investigation, interviewing Woody and Stinson separately in September 2022. Woody identified himself as the man in the camouflage jacket. Stinson identified himself as the man wearing the Nike sweatshirt.

Prosecutors and Culbertson’s attorney filed a joint motion for a new trial on November 2, 2022. The motion said in part: “Both parties stipulate and agree that Defendant Aaron Culbertson Jr. is not the person depicted in the surveillance photo wearing the black Nike hooded sweatshirt. Furthermore, both parties stipulate and agree that Culbertson was not involved in the aggravated robbery of D.F.”

Judge Kristin Farmer of Stark County Court of Common Pleas held an evidentiary hearing on November 3. D.F. did not appear.

On December 7, 2022, Judge Farmer ordered a new trial. The state dismissed the charges on December 14, 2022. Culbertson was released from the Stark County Jail, where he had been moved after receiving a new trial, that same day.

“Prosecutor Stone deserves an immense amount of credit for putting politics aside and doing the right thing in this case,” Ohio Innocence Project co-founder and Director Mark Godsey said in a statement. “Frankly, we don’t see that sort of courage from other elected prosecutors as often as we should. Most don’t want to admit a mistake could have occurred. We are grateful to Prosecutor Stone for bringing freedom back to an innocent man.”

In March 2024, Culbertson filed a claim for compensation for the state of Ohio. A month later, he was awarded an initial compensation payment of just under $131,000. His full award is likely to be about twice that amount.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 1/12/2023
Last Updated: 4/15/2024
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2018
Sentence:8 years
Age at the date of reported crime:16
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No