Saturday, March 14, 2009

DNA Test Clears Ohio Inmate of Rape After 25 Years in Prison

Columbus man finally freed from prison

DNA tests cleared Joseph Fears after 25 years behind bars

Tuesday, March 10, 2009 9:43 PM
By Mike Wagner and Geoff Dutton


Joseph R. Fears Jr.
Test of Convictions

He started with a bowl of lobster bisque and worked his way down the menu at Mitchell's Steakhouse.

Next up was filet mignon wrapped in bacon, a baked potato, french fries, corn, and asparagus. Dessert was a big piece of cheesecake smothered in strawberries.

To toast his first meal outside of prison walls in 25 years, Joseph R. Fears Jr. washed it all down with a glass of red wine and a shot of cognac.

Fears, a 61-year-old Columbus man, was freed this morning after a DNA test proved him innocent of a 1983 rape. He becomes the eighth Ohio inmate and 234th nationwide to be exonerated by DNA testing.

A Dispatch series, "Test of Convictions," led to DNA testing that freed another inmate in August, which Prosecutor Ron O'Brien said prompted him to order a top-to-bottom inventory of his evidence room.

The search uncovered evidence that Fears had been told for years was gone.
The best part of Fears' celebratory lunch Downtown was enjoying it with the little brother he mowed lawns with as a kid, one of several siblings who doubted his innocence. Fears hadn't seen his brother, Kenneth, in more than 25 years.

"You have no idea what it's like for them to turn their back on you because they think you are guilty," Fears, briefly overcome with emotion, told the judge . "It hurts so much."

Kenneth Fears, a retired Air Force officer who lives in California, sobbed in the front row of the courtroom as his brother stood before Judge Charles Schneider in handcuffs, wearing a shirt stamped "inmate" on the back.

"As soon as he walked out, I saw his pain," Kenneth Fears said. "And in that moment, I knew what it was like to have the whole world against you. It's time for the Fears family to heal."
Two hours later, outside the Franklin County courthouse, Fears bearhugged his younger brother and set aside the anger of his wrongful conviction.

"God is good," he said. "I got my family back. That's all that matters."

There are still more legal challenges ahead if Fears is to resume a normal life. Even before being released, he had to register as a sex offender for another rape conviction. Fears was convicted of two rapes committed a week apart.

DNA testing on recently discovered evidence cleared him of one rape. Tests on underwear from the other victim - an acquaintance who accused him of rape - didn't reveal any male DNA. Fears has acknowledged a confrontation with the woman but said he never had sex with her. She is now deceased.

Fears' lawyer, Isabella Dixon Thomas, said she would seek to overturn that rape conviction, as well.

Meanwhile, O'Brien recommended Fears' release based on time he has already served. O'Brien also said he would consider whatever Thomas brings forward on the second rape conviction, though he noted it clearly wasn't another case of mistaken identity.

"I told Ms. Thomas we'd work with her if she has any other legal theories," O'Brien said. "I'm just trying to do what's fair, right and just."

Also sitting in the courtroom today was Robert McClendon, a Columbus man released in August after serving 18 years for a child rape that DNA showed he didn't commit. At Ross Correctional Institution, McClendon and Fears enjoyed schooling the "young guys" on the basketball court.
Now McClendon wants to help his friend find success and happiness in a world he'll scarcely recognize after a quarter century behind bars.

Fears' mother lives in a nursing home in Georgia, and his father is dead. With no money or immediate family in the area, Fears will move in with McClendon's family until he can build a life for himself.

"I wanted to give back," McClendon said. "That's what it's all about."

Fears also met two adult nephews from Columbus yesterday, and the director of the Ohio Innocence Project took Fears shopping for clothes after lunch.

Fears will be entitled to a minimum of $44,209.40 for every year behind bars, under state law. But that calculation will be complicated by his other rape conviction, and the payment will takes months to process even if he succeeds in overturning it.

McClendon recalled sitting with Fears outside the same courtroom together several years ago, when they were to be declared sexual offenders under what was then a new law.

"We sat down there arguing with the people, saying, 'We're innocent!' We refused to come into the courtroom," McClendon said. "Nobody wanted to listen.

"I just hope as a result of my case, and Mr. Fears' case, that it opens the door for other people."

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