Inmate adjusted to prison life despite claim of innocence - Cleveland 19 News Cleveland, OH

Inmate adjusted to prison life despite claim of innocence

By JOHN McCARTHY, Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - A man serving a life sentence for murder and rape who was freed after prosecutors dropped all charges against him says he found a way to adjust to being around the prison inmates who belonged there.

"It was one day at a time. I couldn't deal with it any other way. I surrounded myself with God-fearing people I found in the prison system," Clarence Elkins said in a telephone interview Thursday, hours before his release. "Here I am, seven years later, doing fine, blessed, and ready to go home."

Elkins (pictured, above) walked out of the Mansfield Correctional Institution Thursday afternoon, accompanied by his wife, Melinda, and two sons, to leave for their home in Louisville, about 75 miles away in northeast Ohio.

DNA evidence showed that Elkins, 42, could not have committed the crimes, said officials at the Summit County prosecutor's office, which tried the case in 1998, and Attorney General Jim Petro. Evidence now points toward a man serving a prison sentence for rape in an unrelated case who had spent time just doors down from the victims.

Melinda Elkins was preparing for a news conference in Petro's Columbus office to announce new evidence in the case when word that the charges had been dropped came through.

"I literally broke down and cried -- there was nothing else for me to do -- out of sheer relief," she said.

Her husband called from prison minutes later. She had a simple message: "I said, 'Pack your bags, you're coming home baby.'"

Elkins, who would not have been eligible for parole until 2054, was convicted in the 1998 rape and murder of his mother-in-law, Judith Johnson, 58, and the rape of her then-6-year-old granddaughter.

The focus of the investigation has turned to Earl Gene Mann, 32, who had a relationship with a woman who lived near one of the victims, Summit County prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh said.

Mann, who has not been officially linked to the crimes for which Elkins was convicted, is serving a seven-year sentence at Mansfield for raping three girls. Walsh has not yet filed charges against Mann.

"We are actively working toward that goal and hope to have that accomplished in the near future," Walsh said.

Elkins helped secure a DNA sample by retrieving a cigarette butt used by Mann. Elkins' wife came up with the idea to capture the DNA after learning that Mann had been moved to the same cell pod as Clarence Elkins, said his lawyer, Mark Godsey. Mann since has been moved to the Toledo Correctional Institution.

Elkins said he is not "hateful" but hopes Mann is punished for the crimes.

"I believe he committed this crime, without a doubt. He should get whatever the law requires and whatever the state requires," Elkins said.

Godsey became involved in January 2004, when Melinda Elkins called his Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati law school. The project studies reports of wrongful imprisonment.

Petro began looking at the case last summer when the project and a Cincinnati lawmaker contacted him.

The Cincinnati group began collecting DNA evidence from the crime scene and after Petro's crime lab analyzed the DNA and that of Elkins, they decided he could not have committed the crime, Godsey and Petro said.

"There was a moment pretty quickly, we went, 'Wow!' On the DNA evidence, he was excluded," Petro said.

Elkins said he owed his freedom to the work of his wife, Godsey's group and Petro.

"It's just the final piece of the puzzle for justice here. I'm just so grateful," he said.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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