DNA results may give inmate new trial
Advances in technology make it possible to test 1993 murder evidence from Akron crime scene
By Ed Meyer
Beacon Journal staff writer
Published on Sunday, Jul 18, 2010
The Neal Rankin murder case has confounded authorities for 17 years — and could be reopened through the science of DNA testing.
It took Akron police 15 months to make the first arrest in the Rankin case, and when it was announced in May 1994, the commander of the homicide unit told reporters: ''We had 45 suspects the first day.''
Interviews with numerous suspects in the weeks after the 1993 murder, which were detailed in ''Action Taken'' reports by detectives, show the figure was no exaggeration.
In fact, aggravated murder charges would be filed and dismissed against others before the final suspect, Dewey Amos Jones III, was convicted for the slaying of Rankin, a 71-year-old Goodyear retiree.
Now the case is returning to the Summit County justice system in the aftermath of a judge's order to conduct DNA testing — for the first time — on preserved samples of biological evidence from the crime scene.
Jones and his attorney asked for the DNA tests in court arguments April 5. Common Pleas Judge Patricia A. Cosgrove granted their request, saying the tests should be done ''in the interests of justice.''
A hearing on the matter will be 11 a.m. Tuesday.
Prosecutors already have complied with Cosgrove's order to turn over a list of evidence from the Independence Avenue home, in the Chapel Hill area, where Rankin's body was found on Valentine's Day — Jones' 31st birthday.
Rankin was bound with rope and beaten, then shot in the head.
Carrie Wood, Jones' attorney who works for the Ohio Innocence Project, said the evidence is in the possession of Akron police and soon will be sent to a Cincinnati laboratory, where it will be tested for DNA profiles.
There is no timetable for obtaining the test results, Wood said, but if they come back with DNA profiles excluding Jones, it could be grounds for a new trial.
Laurie Cramer, spokeswoman for the Summit County Prosecutor's Office, declined to comment, saying the case is still open.
Akron police deferred comment to the prosecutor's office.
Jones, 48, has maintained his innocence from the outset of a case in which Wood said there was ''no physical evidence whatsoever'' linking him to the crime scene.
Before Jones went to trial in 1995, Cosgrove's order noted, the state crime laboratory ''was unable to conduct any DNA or blood typing on any of the biological evidence due to the small size of the samples.''
Advances in DNA technology now make that possible, she said.
Jones was present in court for the April arguments but has since been sent back to Richland Correctional Institution.
He is ''very anxious for everything to move forward,'' Wood said.
Although Wood would not comment on the specific biological samples to be submitted for testing, she did say prosecutors gave her ''a very comprehensive list, apparently, of every single piece of evidence that seemed to be collected in this case.''
Much of the evidence to be tested was spelled out in Cosgrove's order and includes:
• The handgun used to kill Rankin, which police found after Jones went to trial.
• Rope allegedly used to tie up Rankin.
• Scrapings from Rankin's fingernails.
• A bloody handprint at the crime scene.
''This evidence would certainly be relevant and admissible in any trial,'' Cosgrove wrote.
Wood said the evidence will be tested at the Cincinnati branch of DNA Diagnostics Center — the same lab that handled the 2007 paternity test confirming Larry Birkhead as the biological father of Anna Nicole Smith's daughter, Dannielynn.
Tests in the Jones criminal case, Wood said, will be done without any charge to state taxpayers.
Wood is a Cornell University graduate who worked after law school as a public defender for the Legal Aid Society in New York City. She was one of the Innocence Project lawyers involved earlier this year in the case of 53-year-old Raymond Towler of Cleveland.
The Cuyahoga County case received nationwide attention May 5 in a segment of the NBC Nightly News, when Wood accompanied Towler as he was released from prison after serving 29 years for the rape of an 11-year-old Lakewood girl.
Tests of preserved DNA from the girl's underwear excluded Towler as the contributor.
Towler had served the longest sentence in Ohio history of any wrongfully convicted inmate to be freed, according to Innocence Project research.
Jones made no comments on his case during his April appearance before Cosgrove. He later agreed to be interviewed.
At the county jail May 12, Jones denied any involvement in the Rankin slaying.
''I had nothing to do with it at all, in any way, shape or form,'' he said. ''I know I'm going to get out. I know the truth is going to come out. I've been praying for it for years.''
Details of conviction
If it is true he had no involvement in Rankin's murder, how is it that Jones was arrested and convicted of aggravated murder, kidnapping and aggravated robbery in a jury trial?
''William Grant Caton,'' Jones replied immediately. ''He told them I confessed the murder to him here at the county jail.''
''I've got a witness statement that was never brought out at my trial. Two guys in another pod, that I don't even know, witnessed Caton and [another man] at a table plotting a story to lie on me. And then they transferred Caton into my pod and transferred him back out,'' Jones said.
Caton testified about the alleged confession at Jones' trial in February 1995.
Jones said Akron detectives repeatedly got Caton out of jail and used him as an informant.
''The only person who put Mr. Jones in [Rankin's] house was the snitch witness, Mr. Caton,'' Wood told Cosgrove during the oral arguments.
Cosgrove's written decision, which Jones had not yet seen when he consented to be interviewed at the jail, confirmed much of what Jones said about Caton's role in the case.
Caton testified, according to Cosgrove's decision, that he met Jones while they were incarcerated at the county jail between Sept. 14, 1994, and Dec. 21 of that year.
Cosgrove wrote: ''They exercised in the gym together and had several conversations. Caton testified that Jones told him that 'they will never find the gun.' . . . On another occasion, according to Caton, Jones told him that he was the one who shot Neal Rankin.''
Caton admitted to ''a lengthy criminal record during cross-examination, including past convictions for aggravated burglary, breaking and entering, receiving stolen property and parole violations,'' the judge's decision went on to say.
On Nov. 22, 1994, a time when Caton and Jones were at the jail together, Caton was taken to court, pleaded guilty to an amended charge of aggravated robbery and was given probation, court records show.
Court records also show that a secret supplementary indictment charging Jones with aggravated murder in the Rankin slaying was filed the same day.
Cosgrove summarized Caton's role with the following passage describing how he met his demise: ''Subsequent to Mr. Caton testifying in this case, he was shot and killed by police after causing a fatal car crash . . . when fleeing from police.''
Caton had stolen a pickup truck on the morning of July 7, 2000. The police chase ended when he ran a stop sign and smashed into a minivan, killing two Marlboro Township boys who were on their way to swimming lessons with their mother.
The investigation of the Rankin slaying was complicated by police findings, according to Beacon Journal archives, that he was a lonely widower who used his Goodyear pension to buy the companionship of people down on their luck.
Months before the arrest of Dewey Jones, his wife, Lori G. Jones; his sister, Elva V. Redington (who also went by the name Virginia Jones); and an acquaintance, Gary Lee Rusu, were arrested in connection with Rankin's murder.
But charges were dismissed against all three in late 1994, within days of their trial dates, for lack of evidence, prosecutors said at the time.
The investigation and arrest of Dewey Jones, according to both defense and prosecution lawyers, was based entirely on circumstantial evidence from Caton and two of Rankin's close neighbors: Robert Strittmatter and Charles Hughey.
Strittmatter and Hughey both identified Jones in police photo arrays as a man they saw near Rankin's home on the day of the homicide and several days before.
Addressing those purported IDs, Cosgrove's decision stated that ''no witness picked the defendant out of a photo array until eight months to one year had passed after the homicide.''
When Strittmatter and Hughey were shown photo arrays in the days after the crime, Cosgrove said, both ''picked the photo of a different individual, not the defendant.''
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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