Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Shadow of a Doubt: The Clarence Elkins Story

The Passion for Justice

The most famous tale involving students is the case of the Ford Heights Four, which even inspired a short-lived television series. David Protess is a professor at the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism in Chicago. He'd led the way in examining cases of potentially innocent men serving time on death row. Over and over, he and his students had shown how prosecutorial error or poor investigating had led to an erroneous conviction. In the Ford Heights incident, four men had been convicted for a double homicide and two were sent to death row. The students did their own sleuthing and helped to prove them all innocent.

More dramatically, Anthony Porter, with an IQ of 51, was two days from execution when he was finally exonerated. He'd been on death row for sixteen years for a double homicide. For four months, the students had gone over the trial records and had even gone to the crime scene to do a re-enactment. This helped them realize that the eyewitness could not have seen what he said he did. In addition, Porter was left-handed, but the perpetrator had been described holding the gun with his right hand. Under questioning from the students, the eyewitness admitted he'd fabricated his testimony under pressure from police. The students also located the real perpetrator, who confessed.

When Illinois Governor George Ryan learned about this case and twelve other death row exonerations, he placed a moratorium on the death penalty in his state. He was shocked that innocent men might have been executed, and everyone wondered if any might already have been. When he left office, he commuted all death sentences to life.

Thirty-seven states currently allow the death penalty, and it's no secret that court proceedings are not always about justice. Even when investigators and prosecutors do try to be careful, many convictions rely on eyewitness testimony, which has often proven to be corruptible and unreliable. Lack of funding and bad lawyers also top the list of reasons why someone might be falsely convicted. Whatever the reason, DNA testing can provide a way out—but too often only after a struggle. That was the case for Clarence Elkins.

Over the course of two years, the students researched ways to get him a new trial. During this time, they helped to free another prisoner who had wrongfully served 25 years, so they knew they could positively influence the justice system. An attorney noted that students generally immerse themselves in these cases far more than attorneys, who were usually too busy to invest themselves in this much uncompensated work. "They [the students] have no bias, no baggage, no paying clients," an assistant attorney general commented. "They can look at things from a different angle." They were also fighting for justice, for something that mattered.

The Ohio Innocence Project had assisted with the DNA testing and legal processes, but when the motion for a new trial was denied, they knew if they were going to free Clarence Elkins they'd need something stronger.


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