Few courtroom dramas in Northeast Ohio have rollercoastered as erratically as Lorain County's infamous “Head Start case.” In the mid-'90s, Nancy Smith and Joseph Allen were tried, convicted, and sentenced for molesting a pack of four- and five-year-olds in Lorain. The salacious case drew attention far and wide, not least because the prosecution’s argument sagged under accusations of misrepresentation and inaccuracy. Many observers were quick to charge the pair had been railroaded.
Through some surprise legal left turns that could have come straight out of an hour-long TV drama, the pair was released from prison in 2009, a happy ray of sunshine capping a long legal nightmare.
The story zig-zagged again Thursday when the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that Smith and Allen must head back to prison.
The case against the two was bizarre from the start (for all the details, read Scene’s 2001 feature story “The Lost Crusade”). Prosecutors alleged that Smith, a single mother of four driving the Head Start school bus, had conspired with Allen, a former sanitation worker with a rap sheet, to kidnap children and take them to an undisclosed location where the assault and torture took place.
The pair maintained they didn’t know one another prior to the accusations and always held fast to their innocence. After the guilty verdicts, however, evidence began to pile up that the full story had not been conveyed in the courtroom. Specifically, questions arose over the lineup identifications made by the kids.
Because of a paperwork glitch, the case landed on the desk of Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Burge. He reviewed the original trial transcripts, spotted the holes and shoddy arguments, and issued an acquittal, immediately releasing the pair from custody in 2009.
That move was countered Thursday by the Supreme Court decision, which decided Burge had stepped outside the parameters of his power when he chucked the original verdict.
Smith and Allen’s supporters were shocked by the decision. “I never thought I would witness anything quite so tragic in the criminal justice system, much less be any part of it,” Burge told the Chronicle-Telegram this week.
Scene spoke with the attorneys of the now 53-year-old Smith and 57-year-old Allen, Jack Bradley and K. Ronald Bailey, respectively. Both says they are looking into various avenues of appeal, including taking the case to the federal level. Although the latest ruling spun on a procedural question, the details of the investigation and prosecution have not been tackled by a court.
“There are still serious questions about how these kids were questioned when they made their accusations,” Bailey says.
Scene also touched base today with Paul Facinelli, the former columnist at the Chronicle-Telegram who lost his job after investigating the Head Start case. The prospect of being teased with two years of freedom only to be yanked back to prison is a “surreal atrocity,” the veteran reporter says.
“It’s as wrong as anything can be.”