The sun was already rising well above Lorain's scant skyline as police officers turned into a vacant parking lot to follow up on a lead the morning of Aug. 8, 1991.
Marsha Blakely, a 22-year-old woman from the neighborhood, had been murdered that night. A group of men stabbed her at least 25 times and ran over her with a car twice. Her body, riddled with "torture-type" wounds, according to reports, was left behind a shopping center off West 21st Street. The discovery seemed uncannily linked to the body of Floyd Epps, found at an apartment building nearby eight hours prior.
Alfred Cleveland, a 21-year-old man known locally for slinging crack around the gray streets of Lorain from time to time, was hanging out in his hometown of New York City.
The days would continue to slip by as police set to work trying to figure out what in the hell happened that night.
Al Cleveland would soon hear of the killings and he would fly out to Lorain, as he did from time to time back then. Scattered neighborhoods in the city were hotbeds of drug activity and Northeast Ohio trafficking and, in good times and in bad, places where Al Cleveland had made a few quick bucks in the past.
It wouldn't be long before police settled on Cleveland, John "Shakim" Edwards, Lenworth Edwards and Ian "Benson" Davis as suspects, all on the back of shady testimony (that would later be recanted) and a hodgepodge of slipshod evidence, police work and prosecutorial actions. All four were convicted in separate trials for the murder.
For more than 15 years now, Al Cleveland has been sitting in the Richland Correctional Institute in Mansfield, sentenced to life in prison, and battling the system through appeals.
Finally, last September, a three-judge panel of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati offered a ruling that no other court or prosecutorial office had ever touched in this case: "It surely cannot be said that a juror, conscientiously following the judge's instructions requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt, would vote to convict," based on evidence that was never presented at trial.
Behind bars to this day, Al Cleveland is an innocent man, waiting for his rightful chance for freedom.
Sunset Boulevard is a short street in central Lorain with little in the way of overt charm. It lies in the heart of the city, between Westgate Shopping Center where Blakely's body was found and Elmwood Cemetery where Blakely's body is buried.
A man named William Avery Jr. and his father lived on Sunset Boulevard. Marsha Blakely, who cops described as a prostitute and drug addict, lived across the street. So did Floyd Epps' sisters. The neighborhood was small and tight-knit, and open drug use was not uncommon. Avery's father often had crowds of people hanging out around the house, passing the crack pipe and letting the hazy Lorain sun pass overhead. The cops knew all about that, but did nothing to intervene. Avery's father was an inside chum of the department - a paid informant.
Cleveland's story is intertwined with the neighborhood and, in particular, with the Avery family.
The son and his father bear the brunt of responsibility for Cleveland's conviction. The younger Avery also holds the key to any potential freedom. That's because Cleveland's 1996 murder conviction hinged nearly entirely on supposed eyewitness testimony from Avery, who came forward after the murder and described the crime scene to investigators in vivid detail.
Except his story was bullshit, largely concocted by his crack-addled father and the officers of the Lorain Police Department - a department known more for sexual abuse and brutality, per a federal investigation, than any real sense of justice.
In the weeks following the murders, his father confronted him with a plan. His father had certain interests to protect. His relationship with the neighborhood and with the police department formed what became the backbone of Cleveland's future behind bars.
The story they crafted revolved around a debt owed to Cleveland. To clear things up once and for all, Avery's debt took the form of beating Marsha Blakely. But Blakely was a friend from the neighborhood, and there seemed to be no clear motive behind the beating, Avery would say. He told investigators he refused to participate, letting the blame slide far from the doorstep of his family.
Nonetheless, Avery would testify that Cleveland and three other men beat her viciously. Stabbed her. Ran over her with a car. Avery, claiming that he was there, went on to insist that Cleveland took part in and organized the murder.
At the time that Blakely was being brutally beaten in Lorain, however, Cleveland was actually in St. Albans, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens, 500 miles away from the scene of the murders. He was showing off his new BMW 7-Series to friends on Mangin Avenue, and public affidavits prove it.
Back on Sunset Boulevard in Lorain, far from the nonsense story that a young man named William Avery Jr. would eventually make up and reiterate over and over again to police, a woman and a man were being beaten to death.
Now reformed and following the path of God, Avery has since said that he doesn't know why either of them were killed. He's said his father was the one behind all of it: the murders, the story, the conviction. Nevertheless, once hatched, Avery could never get out from under the weight of this tale. Time began moving fast, and his story took on reality as it bore toward the courtroom.
William MacArther Avery Jr. was 14 when he smoked crack for the first time. His father had recently lost his job and "messed up the money," as Avery said. When the child came from school to grab some food, his father told him to light up.
"It'll take your hunger away," he said.
Drugs and lies formed a fundamental culture for the elder Avery on Sunset Boulevard. When shit got out of hand in 1991 and two bodies turned up tortured and bloodied and dead, he thought fast and put his son up to the task of fronting a firsthand story to the cops.
His father was present during the interrogations with Detective Gino Taliano and others in late 1991. He leaned in occasionally to remind Avery of certain memories - nudge, nudge.
As the police department's wheels were greased over time with the information spewing from the elder Avery's smoke-infused den, four men's path toward prison became illuminated. The department's addled mole had his channel into the eyes and ears of city stakeholders. When he needed a scapegoat, Cleveland's dealings around town would fall perfectly in his sight-lines.
This is one way in which wrongful convictions are born: falsified testimony that gets handily passed into public record. It's a simple matter, if one can stomach it. From the initial story he told police to repeated interactions with courts over the next decade-plus, though, Avery would try to back out of it. He would try - sometimes half-heartedly, sometimes sacrificially - to get out of the way of the growing injustice.
For his thorough finger-pointing and involvement with the subsequent trials, however, the young man received $2,000 from Crime Stoppers, $2,000 for later relocation and $1,000 for his eventual deposition. This all unfolded in the years following the murder - a slow, steadily financed construction of fate.
Avery would go on to push the prosecutor, Jonathan Rosenbaum, for $10,000. When Rosenbaum laughed in his face, Avery refused to cooperate. He was tossed in jail for contempt, and, when he got out, a mistrial was called and Avery was once again jailed for perjury.
"If they don't go down for it, you're going down for it," Avery recalls Rosenbaum telling him.
As Rosenbaum and Lorain police officers went on to prepare him for the retrial and seemingly inevitable conviction, Avery noticed that he was being helped along from several directions. He spoke with Chicago-based private investigator Paul Ciolino years later about the truth of what was happening in those interviews:
Ciolino: Now, William, during the times, all the conversations you had with the police officers, the investigating detectives, were they aware of the fact that you weren't there, or did they have to give you information to help you with your story?
Avery: Well, I felt that that's what they was doing. They had pictures out on the counter, showing me how the house was, how the mattress was turned, how the table was flipped, you know. They'll ask me a question about, you know, he would sit in front of me and ask me about, How was the table flipped, you know, and have the picture right there.
Ciolino: So all you had to do was look at the picture so you could answer the question?
After the trials and the rounds of testimony, Avery and his father were put into the witness protection program and hustled from motel to motel.
All the while, the elder Avery would go out at night in search of crack and the sweet release of the smoke. He'd take the meal money they had been given as a relocation stipend and spend it on rock. And when it came time for breakfast or lunch or dinner, he'd pass the pipe to his son.
Avery was stuck - and he would remain stuck for many years. But Al Cleveland's new path in life was just beginning.
As time went on, the two men's paths were emblazoned with the courts' actions. Where Avery's words were sucked into the canon of public record, others' were either pushed away or disregarded completely.
"He has completed his probation sentence and is free to go and to stay out of trouble," Al Cleveland's parole officer wrote, clearing him during an in-person meeting Aug. 7, 1991, in Queens, N.Y. Blakely's body would be discovered by Lorain police within the day, hundreds of miles away.
Ayasha Teague, a one-time neighbor of Cleveland in Bayside, Queens, testified in 1996 that there was no way Cleveland could have been in Lorain that night. She brought along a diary she had kept and showcased the entries spanning Aug. 5 - 11, 1991. Cleveland's name was referenced each day as Teague continually mentioned seeing him, except for Aug. 8. But when she mentioned the diary in court, Rosenbaum, the prosecutor, objected and had the book tossed out as evidence.
In fact, the prosecution never really denied that Cleveland was in New York City. They would go on to push all sorts of fanciful angles regarding flight times and high-speed drives across state lines. It's been noted time and time again, however, that not a single flight manifest in the country during that 24-hour period had Alfred Cleveland's name on it.
David Donaphin, a resident of Huntington, N.Y., grew up in the neighborhood with Cleveland. He explained that he was with Cleveland the night the murders happened. They were gathered around Cleveland's new BMW in their Queens neighborhood. More than a dozen other people were with them, all hanging out around 10 p.m. Aug. 7. According to Donaphin, he and Cleveland parted ways just before midnight that night. Epps and Blakely's bodies would be discovered by Lorain police in mere hours.
Donaphin was never subpoenaed.
A sordid upbringing. Pipe after pipe after pipe after.... An unending journey through witness protection. Torture of the mind and body would lead any man to the doorstep of faith and religion. Avery reached out to FBI agent William Beachum in Detroit in 2004. He was turning his life around by way of the Bible. He had found God. Knowing in his heart that he is and has always been the only person really capable of reversing Cleveland's fate, he admitted that he had lied about the course of events.
Within the year, private investigator Paul Ciolino - among the best in the world, many say - tracked Avery down and spoke with him. The young man, who had gone clean and ditched the crack, voluntarily recanted his past testimony. He was starting to talk to those people who would listen after all those years.
"William - he's really a hero in this case. When I found him and got him to give me a sworn statement, that was miracle stuff," Ciolino tells Scene. "Talk about a guy who was raised like a wolf in just a really terrible situation. He found religion and he wanted to come clean - it's as simple as that."
They spoke in early 2006, along with Cleveland's lawyer, Bruce Ellison. But there was nothing simple about arranging the meeting between the men. Cleveland's family had searched for Avery since as far back as 1998. They had hired a private investigator, who at one point nearly discovered Avery's whereabouts right before he fled. Around the same time, in the early 2000s, students from the Innocence Project at Northwestern University hired a private investigator who searched for Avery for two years with no success.
With Avery's statements and publicly sworn change of heart, Cleveland's lawyers sought a new trial by filing a petition of post-conviction relief in Lorain County Court of Common Pleas. The hearing came two years later in 2008. But prosecutorial interjections continued the trend of maintaining the conviction. Avery took the stand and found himself weighed down by the discouragement to recant from Judge Christopher Rothgery, Prosecutor Will Dennis and his own court-appointed local attorney. Avery was pushed to plead the Fifth and keep his mouth shut.
With 20 to 30 years in prison for perjury on the line should he admit the truth under oath - and nary a realistic chance at immunity - Avery's recantation in court has never been a given. He was stood down by Rothgery and Dennis years ago, and it's still unclear how things will play out if Cleveland's case for relief ever makes it back into a courtroom.
Moving from 2008 onward, Cleveland's legal action has been a cycle of appeals. Working outside of the narrowly specified timeframe, Cleveland's appeals have been dismissed by the Ohio Appeals Court and the Ohio Supreme Court. It took a federal panel of judges in 2012 to finally point out that very little in this case stands up to the law, save for the very clear fact that Alfred Cleveland couldn't have been in the right place and the right time to kill Marsha Blakely.
That ruling last fall was a jolting victory - one that always seemed just out of reach. But still, a new trial date has not yet been set.
Jennifer Bergeron, a staff attorney with the Ohio Innocence Project, says that the state has until mid-May to file its return of writ - basically a response to Cleveland's lawyers' amended petition for a new trial. Paperwork ebbs and flows in the tides ahead, leaving mostly murky predictions for what will come in the future. Beyond this summer, the process turns hazy and Cleveland's fate falls once more into a purgatory of waiting and ...waiting.
He's maintained his innocence all along, even when the temptation of admitting guilt to a parole board almost became too much. He may have once again become a free man if he had uttered those words: I did it. It was me. Yes, I killed them. But he is not a man prone to falsehoods.
Despite the glare of reality, Cleveland, now 43, is still holed up in the Richland Correctional Institute. He's made a life for himself there, mostly out of necessity. That's also due to his alpha-type sunny personality, which people close to him say shines through in prison. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction declined multiple requests by Scene to interview Cleveland in person or over the phone.
Plain Dealer reporter Michael Sangiacomo has written extensively about Cleveland on a personal level. Their relationship goes back to 2002, when Cleveland, a talented artist, began sending illustrations to Sangiacomo, who also writes comic books.
Sangiacomo's reporting, along with the work of anyone else shining a light on wrongful convictions, is one of the few pieces of the puzzle that keeps the future alive and hopeful. Avery's testimony is another piece in the case of Alfred Cleveland. But, at best, those pieces still add up to nothing more than a puzzle, an obscurity.
"He's still sitting there waiting for justice. It is outrageous," Ciolino says. He knows that someday Cleveland will be a free man again. His hair will be grayer. His face will drop more heavily toward a planet that's never entirely cut him a fair deal. His past will not resemble the past of most men, though nor will his future.
Until then, he and many others wait. And fight.
But what's the incentive for the state to draw cases out like this?
"It's the age-old problem: Never admit you're wrong under any circumstances," Ciolino says. "It's an institutional memory issue. Everybody that comes after [particular prosecutors, judges, etc.] feels an obligation to protect the institution, to protect the office."
Political pressure is a bitch of a thing to surmount. But it's a hackneyed fall-back. Most involved with the case think that the buck will continue to be passed until some federal judge with a differing point of view sticks his or her nose in the matter.
"That's the only way he comes outta there," Ciolino says. What remains to be seen is just when, precisely, that's going to happen.
The word "if" hangs in the air with its heavy uncertainty.
Cleveland's case isn't unique in Ohio or elsewhere in the U.S.
The Ohio Innocence Project, based at the University of Cincinnati and founded in 2003, analyzes past criminal cases in which the defendants have adamantly maintained their innocence over the years. It's a sure bet that that's a long, long list, but the OIP's staff pursues only legitimate causes and leads. In fact, of the nearly 6,000 inmates who had reached out to the OIP by mid-2012, only 24 had been pursued. Cleveland's was one of them.
The OIP isn't the only game in town. As part of the national Innocence Project, it's got clout. But other law offices and investigative firms around the country perform similar duties. In the case of the OIP, attorneys arrange for the innocence-claiming inmate to fill out a lengthy questionnaire and meet them for some facetime.
Causes for wrongful conviction stem from several core areas: eyewitness misidentification, unvalidated or improper forensic science, false confessions or admissions, government misconduct, the role of informants, bad lawyering and plenty more. At least several of those directly intersect with Cleveland's story. But there's certainly nothing simple about that story, nor is there a straightforward answer for any of the more than 5,000 wrongfully convicted persons each year, per Thomson Reuters' Criminal Law Bulletin in 2012.
Administratively, Ohio has taken strides in recent years to prevent statistics like those from rising. Senate Bill 77, enacted in May 2010, was a comprehensive boost to DNA testing as an element of exoneration, strict police recording techniques and more. Any adults arrested on or after July 1, 2011, for a felony offense must submit to a collection of DNA, which is then recorded and maintained. And any adult convicted of a felony offense will have the opportunity to request DNA testing.
Such measures were, of course, not retroactively enforced. Nor is it clear that those specific provisions would have galvanized Cleveland's path toward freedom. To be honest: Outside of smatterings of media reports and the occasional sensationalized story, there is little that actually prods legal action in the cases of wrongfully convicted inmates.
Out of the spotlight, innocent men and women are lumped in with the guilty and subject to the same tactics of delay that plague the rest of the system. For illustration, Cleveland's innocence has essentially been proven for years now. But his fate can be dragged out toward a distant terminus; the system inherently allows such actions.
Steps forward like SB 77 are woefully rare in contemporary criminal justice. But, obviously, the significant impact of such measures doesn't go unnoticed by those who are watching - and those who stand to rightfully benefit. DNA results proved just earlier this year that former Akron police captain Douglas Prade was actually innocent of his ex-wife's murder. He spent almost 15 years in federal prison as an innocent man. All those years were based on typically faulty "bite mark testimony." Dental impressions, widely cut down to size as bunk science in a courtroom, had altered Prade's life irrevocably.
For Prade, Cleveland and countless others, it shouldn't have to go down like that.
DNA really isn't going to help Al Cleveland get out of jail. But recently reformed William Avery Jr.'s recantation might. That is, of course, if he's willing to face perjury prosecution in court. Whenever (if...) a new trial is called, Avery will have to weigh the potential punishment against another man's freedom.
"Dude's innocent... But I don't feel I have to go to jail," Avery said in his younger days.
It's unclear if the court system is willing to navigate such an imbalance. In the name of justice, immunity from perjury charges is often a worthwhile endeavor. For Al Cleveland, though, this story is still far from crossing that bridge.