Last week, the Ohio Innocence Project helped vacated the conviction of Evin King, a man who has spent the last 23 years of his life in prison for a murder he did not commit. This marks the 25th individual the Ohio Innocence Project has exonerated since its founding in 2003. Leeseberg & Valentine would like to extend their sincere congratulations to everyone who had a role in Evin’s exoneration.
Like many of the cases worked on by the Ohio Innocence Project, this was a long time in the making. After exhausting his appeals after trial, Evin sought the help of the Ohio Public Defender’s office (“OPD”), who started working on his case in 2004. In 2009, Evin and OPD had huge break in the case when DNA testing revealed that male DNA found under the victim’s fingernails matched the male DNA found on the victim’s vaginal swabs and that both of these samples excluded Evin King. Despite this evidence, the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas held this evidence was insufficient to prove that Evin was “actually innocent.”
The Ohio Publice Defender’s office continued to fight for Evin despite this disappointing decision. They appealed this decision to the Eighth District, which affirmed the decision and stated:
“Unless King can offer some explanation or testimony that refutes or casts doubt on the testimony of (the coroner) and (the serologist), the trial court was right in denying the request for relief. Specifically, it would take a hearing with an expert of a report that can reasonably question or refute both (the coroner’s) and (the serologist’s) claims that the sperm were deposited prior to the murder, to make a more compelling argument that the origin of the fingernail scrapings is ‘outcome determinative’ in this case.”
State v. King, 8th Dist. Cuyahoga No. 97683, 2012-Ohio-4398, ¶31.
It is important to note that the prosecution’s theory at the time of trial was that the victim had consensual sex with another individual 2-3 days prior to Evin killing her, despite the noticeable bruising on the victim’s body that was highly indicative of rape. So, according to the Court of Appeals, Evin had to demonstrate that the sperm was deposited at the time of the murder in order to prove he did not commit the crime.
In an effort to get this evidence, OPD sought the assistance and expertise of the Ohio Innocence Project in 2012. The Ohio Innocence Project at the time was a team of three staff attorneys and a dozen or so eager law students who investigated claims of actual innocence. It took several years, but the Ohio Innocence Project found two experts to provide opinions that the semen deposited in the victim’s vagina around the same time she was strangled to death.
The Ohio Innocence Project filed a motion for relief in June 2014 and a motion for additional DNA testing in June 2015. Neither of these motions were opposed by the State, but the trial court sat on the motions until November 2015 before summarily denying both on the grounds that this new evidence created, at best, a “battle of the experts.” The Ohio Innocence Project appealed this decision to the Eighth District who reversed the trial court’s decision in January 2017, specifically finding that “when viewed in light of the new advanced DNA test results, this evidence suggests that the victim was raped and murdered by the same man whose DNA was found on her body. It is undisputed that this man is not King.” State v. King, 8th Dist. Nos. 103947, 103948, and 103949, 2017-Ohio-181, ¶17.
Three months later, the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor revealed that the current coroner could no longer stand by the original coroner’s report given the current understanding of how sperm breaks down and was going to file a motion to vacate Evin’s conviction. Upon a review of the file, it was noted the sperm sample was not collected until an autopsy was conducted the day after her body was found in her closet and it is unknown exactly how long she was in the closet before being discovered. In other words, the sperm had some time to break down after the victim’s death and the current coroner agreed it was highly likely the sperm was deposited around the same time as the murder.
Evin King was granted his release from prison on April 19, 2017.
Evin’s story highlights the hurdles wrongfully convicted individuals have to jump through to have his or her day in court. Evidence excluding Evin as the killer was available all the way back in 2009. However, it took almost a decade for the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office to take a step back and truly evaluate the magnitude of the evidence. We applaud Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley for reviewing the case file, consulting with the current coroner, and recognizing the legitimacy of Evin’s claim of innocence. While it may have happened 8 years after it should have (and 23 years from when it never should have), the important thing is that it did happen eventually and Evin now has a second chance at life.
If you would like to learn more about the innocence movement, you can visit the Ohio Innocence Project’s page on the University of Cincinnati College of Law website. You can also follow them on Facebook to stay up to date on current cases, events throughout Ohio, and their fundraising efforts to ensure they can continue helping wrongfully convicted individuals for the indefinite future.
As for Evin, it is important to remember he is starting his life over from scratch after being incarcerated for the last 23 years. The Ohio Innocence Project has set up a GoFundMe page to help Evin get started while they pursue civil compensation for his wrongful conviction. Please consider donating to get him back on his feet during this stressful time.