The Beacon Journal
Akron, Ohio

December 29, 2004

Judge grants request for Feb. 23 hearing over new DNA evidence in 1998 slaying

Beacon Journal staff writer

Convicted murderer Clarence Elkins has won a major victory in his six-year battle to prove his innocence with a judge's ruling Tuesday that could bring him a new trial.

Summit County Common Pleas Judge Judy Hunter granted Elkins' request for an evidentiary hearing, finding the DNA is newly discovered evidence that was not available at Elkins' trial in 1999.

The sample appears to show another man's DNA inside the body of Elkins' mother-in-law Judith Johnson, the Barberton woman he was accused of raping and murdering in 1998.

Hunter set a Feb. 23 hearing date in which defense attorneys and prosecutors will argue the merits of the advanced DNA technology.

If successful, Elkins would be given a new trial, a prospect that could prove challenging for prosecutors since their star witness -- Elkins' now 12-year-old niece -- long ago recanted her identification of her uncle as the man who beat and raped her after murdering Johnson, her 58-year-old grandmother.

``I'm overwhelmed,'' said Melinda Elkins, Johnson's adopted daughter and Elkins' wife of 23 years, who has led the campaign to prove her husband's innocence.

``I was expecting it, but when it finally comes down, I'm speechless. Right now, it feels like we're making some progress and another door has been opened and not closed.''

Michael Carroll, who handled the trial against Elkins as well as his recent attempts for a new trial, said he welcomes the hearing.

``The public sentiment is that (the DNA evidence) is significant. But I don't think it is. So, I think it's best we have a hearing and just air things out,'' Carroll said Tuesday.

Carroll contended at a hearing Dec. 1 that the new DNA is weak and irrelevant, since no physical evidence was used to win a conviction against Elkins. He also questioned the integrity of the DNA sample taken from a swab of Johnson's vagina. The sample appears to be skin cells that could have been left by someone handling the evidence, Carroll said previously.

Prosecutors maintain that the niece's testimony at trial, coupled with Elkins' alleged hatred of his meddling mother-in-law, were the primary reasons jurors found the Magnolia man guilty.

The girl, age 6 at the time, testified that she was awakened in the middle of the night and attacked by ``Uncle Clarence.'' She was raped and beaten unconscious. In a nearby room, Johnson was found raped and beaten to death.

Elkins, 41, is serving a life sentence. He is not eligible for parole for 50 years.

To Elkins' supporters, who paid $15,000 for the DNA testing through funds donated from individuals across the nation, the evidence is conclusive proof that Elkins did not kill his mother-in-law.

According to court papers filed on Elkins' behalf, tests performed on DNA extracted from Johnson's vagina and fingernails and from the niece's underwear all exclude Elkins as the source. Further, partial DNA taken from Johnson and the niece match, meaning the same man left DNA on each victim, Elkins' defense attorneys claim. None of the tests were available before Elkins' trial.

In order to win a new trial, Elkins must prove that the DNA evidence would have changed the outcome of his original trial.

``I just think these tests show it is conclusively not him and in fact points to another man,'' said Jana DeLoach, Elkins' appellate attorney. ``The prosecutors tried to confuse the court (during the Dec. 1 hearing) and fortunately the judge didn't buy it.''

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