More than a dozen people gathered Sept. 22 in the humid heat of downtown Cleveland to protest the incarceration of RuEl Sailor. This was not the first time they'd marched in Sailor's name, and, they feared, it might not be the last.
Sailor has been in prison since 2003, charged with aggravated murder in a case riddled with prosecutorial myopia.
"This is not just about RuEl," a protester named Shawnee told Scene, "
but about the justice system as a whole." The target of the afternoon protest was Cuyahoga County's Conviction Integrity Unit, which was created in 2014
to re-examine dubious criminal convictions and, when warranted, correct past injustices. Sailor's case rests before the CIU now, though it's unclear when the public may see any action from the prosecutor's office.
Shawnee pointed out that many of Sailor's friends and family members helped get Mike O'Malley elected as prosecutor last year; he had cited wrongful convictions as a priority on the campaign trail against former prosecutor Timothy McGinty (under whose aegis the office created the CIU).
Scene published an extensive feature on the criminal case last year
, poking holes in the county's prosecution and raising questions about how other suspects were investigated (or not).
"He's been in there all this time for something that he didn't do," Shawnee said. "Stop giving him the run-around! How long does someone have to sit in prison once you've found out they didn't do the crime?"
While the rally was happening on the streets, other close advocates for Sailor were upstairs in the Justice Center, getting an update on where the CIU stands in this case.
We recommend returning to our feature for the full story on how Sailor ended up with the murder conviction, but, in simple terms, the prosecution relied on shaky eyewitness testimony from chronic PCP users and the sort of social stereotypes that follow even small-time drug dealers like Sailor. He's had a hard time getting a second look from the judicial system ever since.
In the years after the criminal trial, witness William Sizemore has returned to Cleveland and admitted in a recorded statement that, in fact, he
was at the murder scene that night in 2002; rather than Sailor accompanying the shooter, Cordell Hubbard, it was Sizemore. (Scene
was unable to reach him while reporting the 2016 story.) According to friends of Sailor, Sizemore's latest statements verify affidavits signed by other witnesses, all clearing Sailor's name.
The fear is that even Sizemore's words won't push the CIU to act right now; criminal investigators must follow a specific procedure, and they're currently rounding up long-lost drug users from the neighborhood in those days to further verify Sizemore and others' statements.
To return to Sailor's attorney's quote from last year: "For 10 years he's found information to supplement Cordell's story, but the court is saying, 'That's not new; we've known that's your position since 2003," his attorney Kimberly Corral told us. "That's basically, for lack of a better word, Sailor's shitty position."
Russell Tye, criminal chief of the prosecutor's office, wouldn't confirm whether the CIU had received new information from Sizemore when asked by Scene
earlier this month, saying only that the work in Sailor's case is ongoing.
"The prosecutor's office knows that he's innocent," longtime advocate Amy Spence told Scene
. "They're prepared to do the right thing, but they're completely dragging their feet. And, yes, O'Malley has done everything that he promised he would, but this is the ultimate promise. It's just dragging on and on and on. We all know what the outcome is going to be; I have absolutely no doubt in my mind."
Spence told Scene
this week that the Friday meeting with Tye and others in the Justice Center went well. "We were definitely happy with a lot of the things that were said," she stated, adding, however, that the CIU personnel couldn't give concrete answers as to when they'll provide an answer to Sailor's case. Whether Sizemore himself could be another suspect in the 2002 murder remains an open question, for instance, and one that could lead to Sailor's exoneration.
"They did say that they aren’t trying to fight us," she said, "that they want to work with us … to get RuEl out."