Columbus Dispatch UPDATE:  Judge Frees Robert McClendon

'Hello, truth!'
Robert McClendon has been in prison for 18 years for a rape he says he didn't commit. Now, DNA evidence newly available in the case shows he is telling the truth.
Wednesday,  July 23, 2008 3:12 AM
By Geoff Dutton and Mike Wagner

CHILLICOTHE, Ohio -- Inmate Robert McClendon walked into a prison conference room yesterday with calm confidence, greeting his legal team with smiles and handshakes.

During 18 years in prison, the Columbus man has steadfastly denied the rape that put him there -- claims from a former drug dealer that few took seriously.

Now, he has a favorable DNA test.

The Ohio Innocence Project delivered the test results yesterday. The semen on the 10-year-old victim's underwear could not have come from McClendon.

Robert McClendon
Robert McClendon now awaits word from prosecutors and a judge on whether he can go free
"Hello, truth!" he exclaimed. With steely eyes and a choked voice, he added, "I never, ever raped anyone."

But afterward, McClendon, 52, was returned to his cell at the Chillicothe Correctional Institution.

What happens next is unclear.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien said he was reviewing the report and would discuss the findings today with the lab and the Ohio Innocence Project, a University of Cincinnati-based legal clinic that represents McClendon.

O'Brien said he would consult with the victim's mother and might request additional testing. "That's probably the next logical step."

Innocence Project lawyers said the results moved McClendon one step closer to freedom. "We're thrilled with the results, but have no further comment at this time as we're in discussions with prosecutors on how to resolve the case," Jennifer Paschen Bergeron said.

"Hopefully, we can get you out soon," she told McClendon.

A judge would have to sign any agreement or settle disputes between McClendon's attorneys and prosecutors. Common Pleas Judge Charles A. Schneider is presiding. McClendon invited The Dispatch to hear the results with him. McClendon's case was highlighted in "Test of Convictions," a five-day series in January that exposed flaws in Ohio's prisoner DNA-testing program and identified 30 cases that were prime candidates for testing.

The Dispatch built files on the more than 300 prisoners who applied for testing, almost all of whom had previously been denied. The newspaper re-examined them with the Ohio Innocence Project's team of professors and law students.

DNA Diagnostics Center, a Cincinnati-area lab, volunteered to test the cases free. Prosecutors and judges have since granted testing in 15 cases, more than had been tested in the five-year history of the program.

McClendon's is the first result.

"I'm just overwhelmed with excitement for my dad," said his daughter, Nicole Miller, of the Northeast Side. "From Day One, he has said he is innocent, and he has never backed down.

"Now that it is confirmed, I want the world to know he was convicted by an 18-year-old lie. It's so hard thinking about how much he missed."

The Dispatch could not reach the rape victim and her mother for comment.

In McClendon's case, authorities had long since lost or thrown away swabs from the victim's medical exam -- typically the best evidence for testing rape cases -- but agreed to provide the underwear.

They were openly skeptical. The Columbus police lab had searched for semen on the underwear in 1990 but didn't find any.

Moreover, McClendon failed a lie-detector test before he was charged. He also was an admitted drug dealer with a long criminal history.

He was charged with rape in 1974 but ultimately was convicted of attempted corruption of a minor for having sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 19. He received probation.

Then, in 1990, he was charged with the rape that sent him to prison for 15 years to life. Prosecutors said McClendon took a 10-year-old female relative from her backyard, blindfolded her, drove her to a house and raped her. Then he drove her home.

The victim reported the rape the next day and was taken to a hospital. Her stepfather later delivered her underwear to investigators.

This month, DNA Diagnostics used the latest testing technology, which is exponentially more powerful than what was available at the time of the crime. Analysts found faint traces of semen, tested them and obtained a clear genetic profile.

Last week, a lab worker swabbed McClendon's cheek for comparison. At that point, McClendon said the suspense had ended for him.

"I knew it wouldn't be a match for me," McClendon said. "My worst fear was it being inconclusive."

The DNA profile from the semen can't be entered into the national database of convicted felons to look for a match with somebody else. This newer, more sensitive testing technique isn't compatible. But if a suspect were identified, his DNA could be compared with additional testing.

For years, McClendon has longed for freedom but at the same time feared being paroled, because Ohio law requires a convict to be incarcerated to qualify for DNA testing. The parole board denied him early release again in 2007.

"It was a blessing in disguise when the parole board denied me," he said. "They wanted me to go to a sexual program … where you had to admit (the rape). I flat-out refused.

"I haven't been no angel," he added, "but doing time for something you didn't do, it's 10 times worse."

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