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Mistaken identity

Key evidence tossed by police

David Rawls

Editor’s Note: Today, The Times Leader continues a three-part series on The Innocence Project. Written by LynAnne Vucovich, a reporter with the Norwalk Reflector, the series will appear today through Tuesday.

EUCLID, Ohio — He’s called prison home for the last 23 years.

David Rawls, 55, was convicted in 1997 of aggravated robbery and kidnapping charges. Police and prosecutors say he robbed a Marc’s Discount Drug Store store in Euclid, Ohio, on June 16, 1996.

Rawls contends they got the wrong man. He’s always maintained his innocence and his family has fought for him for more than two decades.

The Innocence Project of Ohio believes him.

“One of the big red flags is when a person is locked up for as long as David has been and still say they’re innocent,” said Donald Caster, an assistant professor of clinical law at the University of Cincinnati and an attorney for the Ohio Innocence Project.

“For somebody like David, who has been in prison for almost a quarter of a century, that’s a pretty big deal.”

Rawls has been denied release at every one of his parole hearings.

“He was denied because he will not admit to the crime,” Caster said.

WHAT HAPPENED?

The robber got away with $8,000, according to court records, which provide this narrative to what happened that day:

A man wearing a dark jacket and a black cap emblazoned with the word “Police” on it entered the Marc’s drug store that afternoon. He knocked on an office door, “the money room,” and store employee Sharon Wheeler opened it.

The robber put a gun in Wheeler’s face.

He shoved her back into the room and closed the door. The man covered her mouth and forced Wheeler to the floor. Using store merchandise — red T-shirts — he bound her hands and feet.

Peter Thomas, a store supervisor, knocked on the door and the assailant pulled him in at gunpoint, ordering Thomas to fill a plastic bag with cash. He forced Thomas to the floor after getting the cash and tied him up using the same T-shirts.

Before leaving with the money the man hit both employees in the head with his gun. Both victims suffered severe head lacerations.

Once police were on scene, Thomas said the assailant was someone he’d seen hanging around the store, believing he might be the store’s new floor cleaner.

Other employees who had spoken to that man said he carried a pistol and told them he was “a part-time security guard and also ran the floors.” The man had asked if there was “a money room around,” they said.

Joe Jones III, the store’s greeter, testified he saw the man run out of the store carrying a bag and red shirt. Jones said the perpetrator had spoken to him just before the robbery and asked which manager was working.

Rawls worked for the cleaning company the store used, and he fit the description of the robber store employees gave. Police gathered a photo array of potential suspects, including Rawls. All the employees picked Rawls as the person they saw.

Arrested just days after the robbery, Rawls went to trial in January 1997. He was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to a total, indeterminate term of 15 to 50 years.

FAMILIAR TERRITORY

The Innocence Project works to exonerate wrongly convicted people using DNA testing and criminal justice reform. The Ohio Innocence Project at Cincinnati Law was started in 2003 and is a top-performing group of the Innocence Network.

Caster isn’t a stranger to exonerating inmates. In 2016, he worked with James Parsons, a Norwalk, Ohio. man, to overturn his conviction. Parsons was charged with the Feb. 12, 1981, murder of his 41-year-old wife, Barbara. He was arrested in 1993 and spent 23 years in prison.

Caster argued the state failed to turn over the personnel file of G. Michelle Yezzo, of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, and that Yezzo acted with “controversial behavior.” The conviction was overturned in 2016.

Caster said the case against Rawls is largely based on eyewitness identifications, which are “not terribly reliable.” An application for post-conviction DNA testing was filed for Rawls in August 2015.

“We did a motion for DNA. Whoever committed the crime used a couple of T-shirts from the store to tie up an employee,” Caster said. “The police collected the shirts, and they certainly would have the perpetrator’s DNA.”

Testing DNA samples from the T-shirts is key to the case, Caster said, but prosecutors contend the state lost the shirts.

“Nobody could produce any evidence to if they had been destroyed or where they had gone,” Caster said.

The court ordered the Euclid Police Department to search its evidence room for the shirts. Caster said a couple of officers went through every box in the room and couldn’t find them.

“(The shirts) could have been a great source of evidence, but somewhere along the line the police got rid of it,” Caster said.

There is no physical evidence that ties Rawls to the case. Defense counsel also filed a motion to release records regarding fingerprint evidence.

“At David’s trial, the police said there were no fingerprints collected … (but) some evidence says that there was,” Caster said. Officers took fingerprints of employees, he said.

“Usually you would take them for exclusion purposes, to compare them against the ones that you find, to eliminate the victim’s prints,” Caster said. “(That’s not commonly done) unless you have prints from a crime scene; we think it’s possible there were fingerprints collected.”

That motion was filed in July and Caster is still waiting for a ruling.

“We’re very frustrated,” he said. “We want to move the case along for him.”

Sometimes murderers are granted parole in less time than Rawls has spent in prison.

“He could go to the parole board and say, ‘I did it and I’m sorry.’ The parole board will look more favorably if he admits to the crime,” Caster said.

But he’s gotten to know Rawls, Caster said, and that’s not something he can do.

“It takes someone very strong and serious about their principles to take a stand against the parole board and assert their innocence even if it could hurt their chances of being released.”

Rawls was sent to the Grafton Correctional Institution in February 1997. He could be held there until 2050, under the terms of his sentence, at which time he’ll be 86 when he’s released.

∫ COMING TUESDAY: Family, Innocence Project fight for David Rawls to be freed.

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