Columbus Dispatch

After Serving 25 Years, DNA Clears Convicted Rapist
Convict in 1983 rapes vows to seek compensation, says pleas for tests were ignored

Friday,  March 6, 2009 3:14 AM
By Geoff Dutton and Mike Wagner

A man who has served more than 25 years in prison for two Columbus rapes has been proved innocent by DNA testing and is expected to be released today.

Joseph R. Fears Jr., 61, had been sentenced to 15 to 75 years for rapes committed a week apart in 1983.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien said Fears was emotional when he personally delivered the news to him Wednesday at the Ross Correctional Institution.

"His reaction was, 'I've been telling you that all along!' " O'Brien said.

Fears had been requesting DNA testing for years. Prosecutors opposed it, and a judge denied him. Fears doesn't have a lawyer.

In a 10-minute phone interview with T he Dispatch last night, an angry Fears vented at O'Brien and a criminal justice system that he says ignored and distorted his case.

"My reaction to this is: I think it's a bunch of bull and this was a cover-up," Fears said. "Ron O'Brien doesn't deserve any credit. I first asked for a DNA test in 1995, and they never did anything. Then they tell me my evidence is gone."

Fears said he plans to hire a prominent attorney to handle his case to seek compensation from the state.

The first thing he plans to do upon his release is bring his elderly mother from a rehabilitation center in Georgia to a nursing home in Dublin.

"I can't wait to tell my mother myself that her son is innocent and free," he said.

"I do feel good about this, but it's hard to separate the anger of what's happened to me all these years."

The Dispatch reviewed Fears' case as part of "Test of Convictions," a series published last year about prisoner DNA tests being derailed by systemic indifference or hostility.

The stories highlighted 30 prime candidates for testing, identified by the newspaper and the Ohio Innocence Project. Fears wasn't included because prosecutors said for years that the evidence in his case was gone.

Everything changed when Robert McClendon was released from prison in August, after serving 18 years for a child rape that DNA testing showed the Columbus man didn't commit. McClendon's application for testing had been ignored for years until publicized in "Test of Convictions."

O'Brien said the Dispatch project forever changed his view of prisoner-innocence claims.

McClendon said O'Brien's new outlook is giving innocent men their lives back.

"I want to challenge other prosecutors in other cities to do the same thing," McClendon said. "If they do the things T he Dispatch and Ron O'Brien has done, I guarantee other people will be walking out of prison."

O'Brien said he ordered a top-to-bottom inventory of the county evidence room and the case files.

So far, it has turned up evidence from Fears' case, as well for Charles Dumas, another Columbus man rejected for testing in the past because the evidence supposedly was gone.

Testing for Dumas, who has served more than 10 years for rape, is under way at DNA Diagnostics Center, a private lab near Cincinnati that is providing free testing as part of the newspaper's project.

For Fears, the evidence search uncovered microscope slides from one rape victim's medical exam, as well as the underwear from the other victim. DNA from the slides didn't match Fears', O'Brien said.

The unknown DNA on the slides was compared against a national FBI database of DNA and matched a felon in Michigan, who is now deceased, O'Brien said. Further investigation showed that the man was in Columbus at the time of that rape, and the victim didn't know him.

As for the underwear remaining from the other rape, the state crime lab didn't detect any male DNA on it. The victim in that case was a female acquaintance of Fears. He acknowledged a confrontation with her but said he'd never had sex with her and that she fabricated the rape claim.

Fears was convicted of both rapes in separate jury trials in 1984. He lost his appeals and was labeled a sexual predator, with a judge noting that "his denial of guilt made it unlikely he would benefit from programs to lessen his chances of re-offending."

Fears didn't have any previous sex offenses. He served a stint for breaking and entering and receiving stolen property, O'Brien said, but had been free for several years before being charged with the rapes.

The victims couldn't be reached yesterday for comment.

If Fears is exonerated during a court hearing expected in Columbus today, he will be the eighth prisoner released by DNA testing in Ohio and 233rd nationwide. O'Brien, in a notice filed with the court, said the DNA tests proved Fears' "actual innocence by clear and convincing evidence."

Of the 30 cases highlighted in "Test of Convictions," 16 have been approved for testing, more than had been tested in the five-year history of the state's prisoner DNA testing program. But DNA testing has been completed in only a few of those cases, an indication of the delays that still plague these cases.

Mark Godsey, director of the Innocence Project, said more prosecutors need to follow the example set by O'Brien's office.

"He is the exact kind of prosecutor that every citizen in Ohio should want; tough on crime but willing to be open-minded to second chances," Godsey said.

"This shows the need for this type of examination in every county. This again shows there are far more cases like this out there around our state."

McClendon was proved innocent, another man was proved guilty and two other prisoners received potentially favorable results that are now subject to ongoing legal wrangling.

Lawmakers are preparing a bill that would make state-funded DNA testing more widely available for prisoners, require evidence to be preserved and create other protections to prevent and expose wrongful convictions.

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