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Willie Knighten, Jr.

Other Ohio Exonerations for Murder
At about 8:30 p.m. on June 24, 1996, two men were shot during a drive-by shooting in the Roosevelt neighborhood on the west side of Toledo, Ohio. Adaris Welch, who was 20 years old, was shot in the arm. Irving Turner, who was 29 years old, was shot in the mouth, and the bullet lodged in his spinal cord. He died on September 10, 1996.

Witnesses told officers with the Toledo Police Department that the shooting might have been gang-related, and that Turner was likely not the intended target. Police then looked into another shooting that had taken place a few hours earlier, involving a gang known as Southside Folk.

On December 5, 1996, Jacqueline Turner, Irving Turner’s sister, was shown a photo array that included 24-year-old Willie Knighten Jr., one of the leaders of the Southside Folk. She identified him as the gunman in the back of the car. Police arrested Knighten that day, and he was later indicted for murder and attempted murder.

Represented by attorney Peter Boyer, Knighten chose a bench trial before Judge William Skow in the Lucas County Court of Common Pleas. The trial began on June 5, 1997.

Welch testified that he did not see who shot him or Turner. Michelle Bradford, Turner’s girlfriend, testified that she, Turner, and several friends were walking down Fernwood Avenue toward a city park. Welch called out to Turner from the other side of the street, and Turner crossed over. Bradford testified that a blue Cadillac came driving past, with four Black men inside. Knighten was in the back, she said. Bradford said three shots came from the back of the car.

Bradford testified that she identified Knighten from a photo array on February 13, 1997. By then, Knighten’s photo had been on television and in the newspaper, but Bradford testified that didn’t affect her identification.

Jacqueline Turner testified that she was crossing Fernwood when the Cadillac nearly hit her. The car stopped, and she continued crossing. She testified inconsistently, at one point saying she saw the shots being fired and at another point saying that she only heard the shots and threw herself on the ground. She said the driver and man in the back seat were wearing white T-shirts and stocking caps.

Sherrice Williams, another member of the group, testified that she had a good view of the Cadillac. She said that all the occupants wore white T-shirts and hats. She testified that she did not know who fired the shots, but that she had identified Knighten in February 1997 as the person in the back of the car.

Detective Dave Mullin testified that a four-door blue Cadillac was stolen on the day of the shooting. It was later abandoned, and three Black men were seen exiting the car. Mullin said a police technician dusted the car for fingerprints, and that Knighten was excluded as a contributor to the three sets of prints found in the vehicle.

Two defense witnesses testified that they either saw the shooter or his arm and that Knighten was not the shooter. A third eyewitness did not see the shooting but did see the passengers in the Cadillac. He said Knighten was not in the car.

Knighten did not testify, but his attorney presented an alibi defense. Three friends testified that Knighten was with them at a bar a few miles away celebrating another friend’s birthday. One of the friends had marked the event on his calendar, which was admitted into evidence.

Judge Skow convicted Knighten of both charges on June 5, 1997, and sentenced him to 18 years to life in prison.

In rendering his verdict, Judge Skow said: “It is true that Miss Bradford was much confused in her testimony as to the diagram and the positioning of the vehicles and other matters. Ms. Williams was less confused in this regard, and indeed, her testimony is highly corroborative of Jackie Turner's testimony … What is crystal clear is that their accounts, especially in conjunction with Jackie Turner, were not rehearsed in any way. Sure, there were minor discrepancies between each [of the] accounts, but those discrepancies enhance rather than diminish.”

At sentencing, Judge Skow asked Knighten if he had anything to say. According to the Toledo Blade, Knighten answered that he was innocent and could identify the persons involved. He filed a motion for a new trial and provided the police with the people he claimed were in the Cadillac, including the person he said was the likely shooter.

“This is extremely unusual,” Judge Skow said at the time. “Except that there’s the code of the streets: You don’t rat on your buddies.”

Mullin said he investigated but could find no evidence to support Knighten’s assertions. On November 5, 1997, Judge Skow denied Knighten’s motion for a new trial. “I remain as convinced as I was at the time of the verdict,” he said, according to the newspaper.

Knighten appealed, arguing that he had been convicted based on unreliable witness identifications and insufficient evidence. Ohio’s Sixth District Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction on December 17, 1999, writing that Judge Skow had properly weighed the credibility of the witnesses.

On February 5, 2009, Judge Skow wrote to the Ohio Parole Board, asking the board to recommend that Governor Ted Strickland grant Knighten clemency. Now a judge on the Sixth District Court of Appeals, Judge Skow said that Knighten had written him more than 100 letters through the years, consistently asserting his innocence.

“Over the past years, I have become increasingly persuaded that my findings were erroneous and that – in fact – it is more likely than not that Willie Knighten was innocent of the underlying charges,” he wrote.

Judge Skow said there was no single fact that pointed to Knighten’s innocence, but rather an “accumulation of facts and anomalies.” He wrote that Knighten’s attorney was inexperienced and erred in asking for a bench trial. The attorney didn’t vigorously cross-examine the eyewitnesses, should have retained an expert to testify about misidentification, and presented a “very shaky alibi defense which did not help his cause though this does not excuse my error in not analyzing the state’s case dispassionately,” Judge Skow wrote.

He said in his letter that Knighten’s mother and Turner’s mother, Addie Turner, had visited him several years earlier, and that they both believed that Knighten was not guilty. Addie Turner had apparently told Judge Skow that Mullin had threatened her with jail if she testified on Knighten’s behalf. At issue was her belief that Turner had died from poor medical care, rather than directly from the gunshot wound.

“Unquestionably [Knighten] shouldn't have been gang-affiliated, and his record prior to December, 1996, was not pristine, but he has now served more than 12 years for an offense he likely did not commit,” Judge Skow wrote.

Judge Skow died June 21, 2009, of pancreatitis. A few weeks later, the parole board recommended that Strickland grant clemency.

The Ohio Innocence Project wrote Strickland on November 20, 2009, urging the governor to follow through on the recommendation. It said that Knighten was a model prisoner, with a supportive family and strong roots in Toledo. An attorney for the organization wrote that Jacqueline Turner had told others since the trial that she did not see the shooter, but that Mullin told her that Knighten was involved. “In an effort to bring justice for her brother, she testified that the killer was Willie Knighten Jr., and she encouraged Ms. Williams and Ms. Bradford to do the same,” the letter said. (Turner declined to execute an affidavit.)

Strickland granted Knighten clemency on November 23, 2009, and he was released from prison on November 24. Knighten began working to prevent gang violence in his community and helping people released from prison find jobs and stability.

In 2021, the parole board recommended that Knighten receive a full pardon. Gov. Mike DeWine granted the pardon on May 31, 2022.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 3/7/2023
Last Updated: 3/7/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempted Murder
Reported Crime Date:1996
Sentence:18 to Life
Age at the date of reported crime:24
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No