Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Shadow of a Doubt: The Clarence Elkins Story

More Sleuthing

Melinda Elkins
Melinda Elkins

By this time, Melinda was fully immersed in her own detective work. She had learned about the legal system, sorted through records, watched television shows like Forensic Files, and thought about everyone who might be able to offer information that had not yet been uncovered. She also looked into other possible suspects. She did not hold anything against her niece, but knew that for some reason the girl had given erroneous testimony.

At a cost to her own family relationships, Melinda urged Clarence's siblings to assist, and they pooled their savings to accumulate more than $100,000. Her sister, Brooke's aunt, also joined the fight. With this money, they looked for a private investigator and a new defense attorney. They believed they knew who had entered Judith Johnson's home that night, but they lacked evidence. They set up a Website and generated publicity, which caught the interest of producers of American Justice.

American Justice logo
American Justice logo

Elizabeth Kelley, an attorney, came aboard to keep the case alive and Martin Yant, a private investigator who had authored Presumed Guilty: When Innocent People are Wrongly Convicted, agreed to investigate. His specialty lay in helping to overturn convictions based on poor evidence handling or faulty legal procedures. When he examined the case, he thought it was not only wholly circumstantial, but that the totality of circumstances hardly made an airtight case. No direct physical evidence tied Elkins to the scene, and the child had initially expressed some doubt over her identification. In addition, pubic hairs recovered from Judith's body, skins cells from beneath her fingernails, and cells from her genital area had not been sent for testing. Yant believed that the police had made a common error: they had developed a case around Elkins and had thus failed to look into other possible suspects.

The untested evidence was sent to an independent lab, and the pubic hairs were found to be inconsistent with Clarence Elkins' hair, and the DNA evidence excluded him as its source. However, the court denied another trial because DNA had not been part of the original case. In addition, Brooke's later testimony was not admissible, because it had been hypnotically refreshed. In essence, Clarence was stuck. Neither physical evidence nor eyewitness testimony could gain him a new hearing and thus free him.

Book cover: Presumed Guilty: When Innocent People are Wrongly Convicted
Book cover: Presumed Guilty:
When Innocent People are
Wrongly Convicted

Yant decided to ask around to see if there was anyone who had known Judith who might resemble Elkins. He found such a person, and the facts supported the likelihood that he could have been involved. This suspect had sustained a severe head injury as a child — often implicated in impulsive violence — and he often carried a sawed-off pool stick wrapped in duct tape, allegedly for self-defense. Although he was much younger than Judith, he'd had a romantic interest in her, which she had spurned. In fact, she'd done so only a week before. Around the time of the incident, neighbors had seen scratches on his face and arms, he had brown eyes, and a nurse said that he'd entered Brooke's hospital room after the attack to look at her. Brooke identified him as the man, but when his DNA was sent for testing it did not match. (This was a good example of how easy it is to falsely accuse someone because the circumstances, with logical deduction, seemed to make a solid case.)

In 2002, one of Clarence's five brothers told a reporter, "This has been a miscarriage of justice for my brother and Judy Johnson. No one deserves to have this kind of thing happen to them. One day is too long. Four years is way too long."

Eventually, the Ohio Innocence Project got involved.

 

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