Sentenced to 50 years in prison for the alleged murder of college student Sarah Ann Ottens, James Wendell Hall was exonerated after gaining access to previously withheld exculpatory information that had been suppressed by the prosecution. Sarah Ann Ottens, a nursing student at the University of Iowa, was found strangled to death in her dorm room in Rienow Hall on March 13, 1973. The evidence was inconclusive as to the identity of the perpetrator; however, prosecutors slanted the case toward Hall, in part by suppressing evidence that tended to point away from him. Race may have played a factor in this tactic, as the record noted that “racial slurs” were made by the prosecution and directed at Hall, a black man.
Taken as a whole, much of the evidence of record was inconclusive. Hall lived in Slater Hall, a dormitory across the street from Rienow Hall, but there was no evidence that Hall and the victim knew each other. A search of Hall’s room turned up a pair of tennis shoes “suspected of being bloodstained” and having embedded under the laces a hair “consistent with hair samples taken from the head of Sarah Ann Ottens.” However, the unavailability of DNA testing and other such methods at the time meant this is was far from conclusive evidence. A fingerprint found in the victim’s room was alleged to be that of Hall, although after statements to that effect were made to the jury, the prosecution never introduced any such evidence. Neither did they turn over pictures of the fingerprint to Hall’s lawyer.
Witness testimony in the case was similarly inconclusive. Robert Dean Jones, a student at the University and a resident in Rienow Hall, testified that, on the afternoon of the day in question, he rode an elevator in Rienow Hall with Sarah Ann Ottens and an unidentified white male (again, Hall was black). Elsie Barnes also verified that she saw Sarah Ann Ottens enter the elevator with a companion, but did not see the companion. John Reding was a repairman working on the Rienow Hall elevators that day, and rode them several times in the course of his repairs. He claimed to have ridden with a girl wearing the same type of clothing the victim was found wearing, and also remembers a companion, but apparently could offer no other specifics beyond that. Reding also testified that he had very poor vision at the time, due to having previously broken his glasses. Rosemary Jones, a cleaning lady in Rienow Hall, testified that she saw a black male knocking on Sara Ann Ottens’s door on the afternoon of the day in question, but apparently later admitted to lying while testifying. Hall’s friend, Earnest Roberson, lived in Rienow Hall and testified that Hall called him twice around the time the murder took place, asking to be let in, but that subsequently he almost immediately ran into Hall in the Rienow Hall stairwell, implying that Hall called from within the building around the time of the murder. However, Elizabeth Allen was in the room with Roberson and recalled only a single phone call and recalled a longer time period between Hall’s call and Roberson’s meeting of Hall in the stairwell.
After Hall’s conviction, other exculpatory evidence was found to have been intentionally withheld from the defense. For example, it was later discovered by the defense that the grand jury was not made aware that witnesses had made a positive identification of someone other than Hall. Rosemary Jones made a definite identification of one William Burbidge early in the investigation, and another witness, Johanna Sleichter, made a tentative identification of Burbidge shortly after the murder occurred. Neither of these facts was disclosed to the grand jury or to the defense at the time. Garry D. Woodward, the prosecutor, also failed to inform the grand jury that both Rosemary Jones and Johanna Sleichter failed to pick out Hall from a photo spread. On top of this failure to disclose, chief investigator John Jutte testified for the prosecution that Jones and Sleichter had identified Hall. Prosecutor Woodward, while informing the grand jury that Hall denied knowing the victim, stated (without any support) that Hall’s fingerprint was found in the victim’s room, thus creating the inference that Hall had lied. While the omission of apparently inconclusive fingerprint evidence was damaging in itself, its use to create the impression of a lie was so central to the case that, in the words of the Iowa District Court where the case was tried and which later granted a motion to set aside the original indictment, its importance “cannot be overstated, considering that the entire case against Hall was based on circumstantial proof.”
Given the above, it is perhaps no surprise that Hall was indicted by a grand jury for the Johnson County, Iowa District Court, on September 19, 1973, and also convicted of second degree murder by the same Court in May 1974. An appeal was taken to the Iowa Supreme Court, alleging numerous grounds for setting aside the indictment and overturning the verdict. Among the grounds were the improper admission of evidence, and the suppression of exculpatory evidence. The Court affirmed the verdict but remanded for further inquiry into the suppression of possible exculpatory evidence in the grand jury testimony. On remand, the District Court in Johnson County overruled motions for a new trial and for invalidity of the indictment. A second appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court resulted in another affirmation of the original verdict. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was similarly unsuccessful, with the Supreme Court refusing to hear the case.
Hall thus remained in jail until his release on bail in November 1983. However, in 1982, Hall’s attorney asked the Johnson County Attorney’s office to release previously withheld information relating to the case, and they did so. The released documents revealed many of the previously mentioned suppressed facts to Hall and his lawyer for the first time, as well as other information, including the fact that prosecutors had other suspects besides Hall. One suspect had even been identified in a photo lineup by a witness (presumably Rosemary Jones) who instead testified at Hall’s trial that she saw Hall. According to one of the newly-released documents, another suspect “knew many unpublished details of the crime.”
This new evidence formed the basis for Hall’s May 25, 1983 application to the Johnson County District Court for post-conviction relief, requesting a new trial. The District Court granted the application on November 22, 1983 and scheduled a new trial to take place in October 1984. Meanwhile, Hall also filed a motion to set aside the original indictment, again on the basis of the newly found exculpatory evidence, and on May 17, 1984, the Johnson County District Court also granted this motion. With the original indictment set aside, the Iowa Attorney General’s office could not proceed with a new trial until it convened a new grand jury that returned a new indictment. Faced with the new facts, this grand jury refused to indict Hall in May 1984, at which point the Attorney General’s office announced that it would drop its prosecution of Hall.
- Researched by Jon Ikegami
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.