CLEVELAND (AP) — Three men imprisoned for nearly 20 years after a jury convicted them of murder in 1996 should have a new trial because a prosecutor suppressed evidence that calls into question the men's guilt, a judge ruled Thursday.
Eugene Johnson Jr., 37, Derrick Wheatt, 37, and Laurese Glover, 36, were convicted in the February 1995 shooting death of Clifton Hudson Jr. in East Cleveland. Johns, believed to be the gunman, got 18 years to life in prison. Wheatt and Glover received 15 years to life. They were teenagers when they were sent to prison.
Judge Nancy Margaret Russo set bond Thursday for the men at $50,000.
The case has a complicated history. It wasn't until 2013 that attorneys from the Ohio Innocence Project learned that Carmen Marino, a top county prosecutor, had sent a letter in 1998 to East Cleveland police telling them not to provide appellate attorneys with the investigative file from the Hudson slaying and to instead send the file to him. Police turned over the file to the Innocence Project in late 2013.
The file contained 1995 statements from two brothers, 8 and 9, who said they saw the shooter emerge from a post office parking lot and not from the car where Johnson, Wheatt and Glover were sitting that was parked near the post office driveway. Attorneys say other information was in the files, including details of threats made to Hudson and his brother that would have aided the men's defense.
Russo on Thursday called Marino's letter a "deliberate, willful and malicious suppression" of evidence.
Marino, who is retired, could not be reached for comment.
Russo ordered a new trial for the men in 2004 after the prosecution's key witness, a 14-year-old girl, recanted her testimony. An appellate court overturned Russo's ruling.
Assistant prosecutors handed out an information sheet after the hearing that said the men's attorneys had not proved their clients' innocence. Spokesman Joe Frolik said the prosecutor's office plans to appeal Russo's ruling.
Attorney Brian Howe of the University of Cincinnati-based Ohio Innocence Project said the group has been working on the men's case since 2007. The Innocence Project has never alleged misconduct by prosecutors, Howe said, but added that it would have been a different trial had defense attorneys been given information known today.
Eugene Johnson's mother, Charlotte, fought hard to maintain her composure after Thursday's hearing. She said she has felt betrayed by the criminal justice ever since her son was convicted.
"They framed my son for murder," she said. "He was just a kid when he left. My heart goes out to the family of the victim, but my son was not responsible for this."