In July 1971, a lone gunman robbed an Open Pantry convenience store in Kent, Ohio, escaping with $150.
After reviewing photographs of possible perpetrators, several witnesses identified a photograph of 19-year-old Leonard O’Neil. Police questioned O’Neil, who confessed to the crime. However, he later recanted his confession and said that he had an alibi for his whereabouts at the time of the crime – he was with his girlfriend.
Police and prosecutors did not believe him and neither did a jury. On November 3, 1971, O’Neil was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison.
Over three years later, in March 1975, James E. Lewis, an acquaintance of O’Neil’s, described by police as a look-alike, confessed to the robbery. Lewis provided previously undisclosed details of the crime.
Prompted by Lewis’s confession, polygraph examination results for Lewis and O’Neil and a reinvestigation of the crime, Assistant Portage County Prosecutor Kenneth Bailey moved to dismiss O’Neil’s case, calling his conviction a “miscarriage of justice.”
When O’Neil’s attorney, Perry Dickinson, was asked why an innocent man would confess to a crime, Dickinson explained that O’Neil had previously been in trouble with the law as a juvenile, and when he had confessed on those occasions, “authorities never did anything to him. So he thought he’d be back on the street in a few days this time.”
The Court of Common Pleas of Portage County granted O’Neil’s motion for a new trial and the charges against him were dismissed in March 1975. The following year, James E. Lewis committed suicide while he was being held in the Portage County Jail.
After O’Neil’s release, he attempted to seek compensation for his wrongful imprisonment. He was unsuccessful until special legislation was enacted by the State of Ohio, effective November 3, 1981, granting him the right to sue the state for compensation. O’Neil was then awarded $6,967 by the Court of Claims of Ohio for his 38 months in prison for a crime he did not commit. The 10th District Ohio Court of Appeals overturned this award, stating that the low dollar amount “shocks the conscience.”
In December 1984, the Ohio Court of Claims awarded O’Neil $80,935 in compensation for his wrongful imprisonment. This award was comprised of $21,238 for the loss of earnings; $25,000 for the loss of liberty and separation from loved ones; $20,000 for injuries and adjustment difficulties while imprisoned; $5,000 for damage to his reputation; and $9,587 for legal fees. O’Neil was the first person to receive compensation from the Ohio Court of Claims for a wrongful conviction.
– Meghan Barrett Cousino
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.