This week, the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office vacated the 1995 murder conviction of a Cleveland man. For 23 years, Evin King has been pushing his case for innocence, including a long, dirty fight over DNA testing. With King's upcoming release, the spotlight is back on Cuyahoga County's ongoing issues involving bad justice.
King was arrested and charged after his girlfriend, Crystal Hudson, was found murdered and stuffed in her closet on June 22, 1994. King was in the apartment when the body was discovered; Hudson has been strangled and beaten; despite a reportedly overwhelming smell of decay, King had spent the previous night at the home without detecting the body. This, plus no signs of forced entry, narrowed suspicion around the victim's boyfriend.
Semen was found inside Hudson's body. The DNA did not match King's, however. At trial, Cuyahoga County prosecutors theorized that the fluid did not come from Hudson's attacker, but an unrelated sexual encounter before
the woman's brutal death. To back up this theory, prosecutors leveraged science: then-Cuyahoga County Coroner pathologist Dr. Robert Challener testified at King's trial that, based on the number and quality of the sperm, it was reasonable to believe the fluid was from sex "two or three days prior to her death." For a jury, the expert testimony was likely an unimpeachable slam-dunk: the semen couldn't have come from the attack. King was convicted.
But the semen was not the only DNA material found on Hudson's body: skin cells were also scraped from under the victim's fingernails. Unfortunately, in the mid-90s, technology and science weren't advanced enough to test the material.
King, however, kept pushing. It's worth noting here that after you've been convicted of a crime, it's a dogfight to obtain any type of post-conviction forensic testings. In the eyes of the court, it's basically a done deal—-outside of procedural issues, the appellate courts assume the trial jury got it right. Also, often the desired testing is expensive and cutting-edge; convicted men and women at this point in the process have usually maxed out their finances. If those aren't enough hurdles to clear, the law is murky about whether prisoners even have a Constitutional right to DNA testing.
Despite all this stacked against him, King and his legal team from the Ohio Public Defender continued pressing the courts. In 2009, he won testing for the skin cells. The results showed the DNA under the victim's fingernails matched the DNA in the semen. In 2015, King and his team at the Ohio Innocence Project filed post-conviction motions arguing the testing developments torpedoed the state's original trial theory. King's team also asked the court upload the DNA results into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) on the off-chance the material connected up to another unsolved or solved crime.
Reasonable request, right? Well, you can call the American justice system a lot of things, but reasonable it ain't. King's 2015 post-conviction motions were denied by the trial court — denied after the court sat on the motions for a year-and-a-half. But last January, the 8th District Court of Appeals swatted the trial court's decision, stating the DNA material should be uploaded into the system, giving King access to the material for further testing, and ordered a hearing on the matter.
There was a significant shake-up going down in the hallways of the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office in January 2017. Michael O'Malley had just taken over the office; part of the new prosecutor's campaign pledge involved taking a closer look at post-conviction claims of innocence, especially after questions rose over the office's commitment to conviction integrity
following years of high-profile exonerations
. With the new regime in place, O'Malley ordered a review of King's claims.
According to court documents, Cuyahoga County prosecutors learned that the DNA material had actually already been uploaded into CODIS since 2009. Unfortunately for King, the material didn't match any other rape cases. However, prosecutors also went back over the forensic theory of the case; meeting with Dr. Joseph Felo, a pathologist from the Medical Examiner Office, they learned the original scientific testimony was still consistent—-except for one megaton difference.
"Dr. Felo stated that he studied under Dr. Challener and that, at the time of King's trial, it was believed that sperm could be dated from time of death," Assistant Prosecutor Kristen Sobieski wrote in a recent affidavit submitted to the court. "A critical difference, however . . . is that we now know that sperm should be dated backward from the time the specimen is collected—-not the time of the death— because sperm breaks down inside the body after death."
The sperm here was collected at the time of the autopsy, June 23, 1994. Within this time frame, "Dr. Felo stated that it is reasonable to believe that
the sperm was deposited contemporaneously with the victim's death."
That new information about sperm, then, meant the DNA found under the victim's fingernails and the semen belonged to the same person— not King.
With the new evidence, O'Malley's office filed this week to vacate King's conviction. Yesterday a court ordered the prisoner to be brought back to the county for a hearing. He could be released as early as tomorrow.
to check out a tearjerker video of King's attorney Jennifer Bergeron informing her client about the development.
“While the initial delay in obtaining justice for Mr. King is disturbing, Michael O’Malley and the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office deserve credit for turning this case around and correcting an injustice," Mark Godsey, director of the Ohio Innocence Project, stated in a release
. "As we have seen in other counties with other cases, prosecutors far too often fight back hard against an exoneration even when the evidence of innocence is strong. But in several past cases in Cuyahoga County, and today with Evin King’s case, the prosecutors in Cleveland put justice above winning."
If you spend some time considering King's case, you begin to feel out some of the larger problems facing the criminal justice system. Science? It's a moving target, as King illustrates: what was once hand-on-the-Bible honest lab room fact 20 years back is erroneous today — frightening to think about. Also, as King's long haul to freedom shows, the appellate courts don't really give a damn about hearing your case for innocence— trial judge gave bad jury instructions? Okay, we'll hear you out on that. Say you didn't do it? Nope. Not in this courtroom. And finally—-and most critically—-there's this ongoing resistance to the right to DNA testing. Still.