On the afternoon of August 22, 1975, Detective Sergeant Gary Yost of the Akron, Ohio, police department was off duty, working his second job as a security watchman at Shippers Discount Company, when he apparently encountered a break-in. He was shot and killed. A truck driver discovered Yost’s body the next morning.
Police found an 8.5” knife near Yost’s body. The officer’s gun, which police believed was the murder weapon, was also found at the crime scene and a bullet was recovered from Yost’s body.
An arrest for Yost’s murder did not occur until more than seven months later, when a jailhouse inmate told police that 22-year-old Donald E. Webb, Jr., who was also an inmate at Summit County jail on unrelated robbery and narcotics theft charges, was involved in the murder. On April 6, 1976, police charged Webb with aggravated murder and aggravated burglary. Webb soon provided police with the names of his alleged accomplices. “Webb didn’t volunteer the information,” said one of the officers involved in the investigation. “We pulled him out of the jail and then, working with Akron detectives, we broke the case.”
Police arrested the four other men implicated by Webb – Terry E. Achberger, Danie Lee Teter, Wilford M. Hyde Jr., and Marion F. Sperrow – and charged each of them with murder and robbery.
Webb entered into a plea agreement in which he agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for testifying against his alleged accomplices. Webb’s initial taped statement did not implicate himself, Achberger or Teter in the crime, but he later made a statement implicating himself and all four other men and maintained that story in his testimony at their trials.
Hyde was tried first, in early June 1976. There was very little physical evidence available in Yost’s killing, so the case against Hyde – and his co-defendants – relied largely on Webb’s testimony. Hyde testified in his own defense and provided eleven witnesses to support his alibi that he was with Sperrow at an all-night party on the night Yost was killed. He was acquitted on all charges on June 25, 1976.
In early July 1976, 29-year-old Achberger and 31-year-old Teter were tried jointly. Webb testified about his relationship with Achberger and Teter and their involvement in Yost’s death. On July 28, 1976, both Achberger and Teter were convicted of aggravated murder and aggravated robbery. The judge sentenced both men to life in prison for the aggravated murder conviction and seven to 25 years for the aggravated robbery conviction.
Sperrow’s trial began in September 1976, and many of the same alibi witnesses who had testified in Hyde’s trial took the stand again to confirm Sperrow’s presence at the same party. The jury acquitted Sperrow on September 20, 1976.
In January 1977, Webb recanted his testimony in a conversation with Achberger’s attorney. Webb stated that neither he nor any of the other four men charged had been involved in the crime and referred to all his testimony as “a big lie.” In a sworn statement, Webb described how his lie had continued to grow as police threatened him with the electric chair if he did not cooperate. According to newspaper articles, Webb stated that he had made the story up to avoid a possible death sentence and to seek retribution against Hyde, whom Webb claimed had previously cheated him and tried to kill him in connection with a drug deal. Webb stated that he knew of Sperrow from Sperrow’s involvement in the same drug deal, and that Teter’s name had been suggested to him by a fellow inmate. Webb stated that he had implicated Achberger because police suggested he “take Terry down, too.”
The following month, Achberger filed a request for a new trial based on Webb’s recantation. However, the Summit County Court of Common Pleas denied the request on the basis that a recantation by the state’s principal witness was insufficient to entitle Achberger to a new trial.
Teter sought a new trial as well. His appeal was based on nine alleged errors made during his trial. The court agreed that two of these alleged errors – both of which related to the improper admission of evidence – were sufficient grounds for granting a new trial. The two pieces of improperly admitted evidence were testimony regarding a leather jacket Teter had allegedly worn on the night of the murder and testimony regarding an alleged telephone conversation, which constituted inadmissible hearsay. On September 8, 1977, the Ninth District Court of Appeals overturned Teter’s conviction and granted him a new trial.
Webb refused to testify against Teter at a potential retrial. The charges against Teter were then dismissed in August 1978.
Achberger remained in prison until December 1981, when his motion for a new trial was granted by Summit County Common Pleas Court Judge John Reece on the basis of two new pieces of evidence submitted by Achberger’s attorney. The first new piece of evidence was a tape recording of a tip that had been called into a news radio station the morning after Yost’s death, implicating a man named Bernard Cirillo in the killing. The second new evidence was an affidavit from a confidential informant detailing a related conversation with Bernard Cirillo’s brother, Gino. On December 23, 1981, the charges against Achberger were dismissed and he was released from prison.
In 1999, Achberger sought compensation for his wrongful imprisonment under the Ohio Wrongfully Imprisoned Individual Law but compensation was denied.
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.