Bill Hewitt
October 09, 2006 12:00 PM

Melinda Elkins was relaxing at home in Magnolia, Ohio, that Sunday morning when a dozen police officers came pouring onto her property. “It seemed like something out of a movie,” recalls Elkins, 43. A deputy sheriff gave her the awful news: Elkins’s mother, Judy Johnson, had just been found murdered at her home 35 miles away. And that was not all. Elkins’s niece, a witness to the crime, had told investigators that the killer was Melinda’s husband, Clarence Elkins. As deputies put the cuffs on Clarence, “I was crying and screaming,” says Melinda. “My mind was going back and forth between my mom being killed and them saying it was Clarence.”

But through all the pain and confusion, one thing was clear to Elkins that day eight years ago: her husband, a soft-spoken steel press operator, could not have committed the crime. Armed with that conviction she embarked on a remarkable campaign, at times at considerable personal risk, to exonerate him and find her mother’s killer—an effort that ultimately brought success and lately talk of a Hollywood film about the case. “From day one she never stopped working and finding the truth and searching for justice,” Clarence told The Columbus Dispatch. “People tried to put up roadblocks and she’s never given in.”

The crime itself was horrific. The intruder had raped, strangled and beaten Johnson, 58, with a blunt instrument. Sometime during the attack, Johnson’s 6-year-old granddaughter Brooke Sutton, who was sleeping over, had emerged from her room and seen the assailant in the kitchen with his back to her. The little girl had gone back to bed, and the killer had then entered her room and raped and strangled her, leaving her for dead. But in the morning she had awakened and gone for help.

Though there was no physical evidence to tie Clarence Elkins to the murder, the prosecution relied heavily on Brooke’s testimony that the assailant was her uncle. In 1999 prosecutors won a conviction. Clarence was facing the death penalty, but Brooke felt he should be spared. Says her mother, April Sutton, who is Melinda’s younger sister: “She said, ‘No, Mom, enough people have died. I don’t want him to die.'”

The verdict of life in prison satisfied everyone except Melinda and her two sons, Clarence Jr., who was 15 at the time of the murder, and Brandon, 12. For one thing, as Melinda told police, Clarence had returned home the night of the murder by 3 a.m. after bar hopping with friends—which would have left no time for him to have killed Johnson. For another, despite the fact that Melinda and Clarence’s marriage had been plagued by tensions in recent years, she and her sons were certain from the beginning that Clarence, who had no criminal background, could not have committed an act of violence. “I knew he wasn’t capable of that,” says Brandon, now 21 and working for a furniture company.

By publicly insisting on Clarence’s innocence, Melinda infuriated the rest of her family. “It was like I had leprosy or something,” she says. “No one wanted to talk to me.” Soon an undeterred Melinda began educating herself about criminal science. “I watched every show on Court TV and Forensic Files,” she says. She also compiled a list of people who she thought should be considered suspects—including men who had made romantic overtures to her mother and been rebuffed.

Her intent, though, was not to play armchair detective. Rather, she set about to surreptitiously collect DNA samples from each suspect in the vague hope that they might someday be used to clear Clarence. That required snooping around some of the tougher precincts of Barberton, Ohio, a gritty industrial town where her mother had lived. She asked a bartender to save her a beer glass that one suspect had used. She also traced a suspect who had once been accused of rape to another bar, where she struck up a conversation with him; when he went to the bathroom, she retrieved his cigarette butt with a pair of tweezers.

Using tips she learned on Forensic Files and from private investigator Martin Yant, whom she hired to help work on the case, she ultimately secured usable samples from five people. At the same time, though, her efforts alarmed her sons, who feared that she would become the killer’s next victim. “My brother and I would have knives under our beds [for protection],” says Brandon. “It was a traumatizing situation.”

It was also deeply frustrating. Though she had samples, Melinda did not have the money to have them tested. Then in 2002, she saw a story in the Akron Beacon Journal mentioning that a man named Earl Mann had been convicted of raping three young girls, and realized that he had dated her mother’s former next-door neighbor. She discovered that Mann was behind bars for that crime and, by coincidence, was serving time in the same prison as Clarence. She eventually enlisted her husband to get a DNA sample from Mann. For nearly two months Clarence walked around with a clean tissue, waiting for the chance to scoop up a sample.

Meanwhile Elkins got welcome help from Mark Godsey of the Ohio Innocence Project. Godsey persuaded a DNA testing firm to analyze Melinda’s samples as well as those collected at the crime scene for $25,000, half the normal cost. In 2004 the first round of testing showed that Clarence’s DNA did not match newly discovered DNA samples at the crime scene. Elkins and Godsey assumed that would exonerate Clarence. But a judge refused to order a new trial, saying the evidence wasn’t sufficient to change a jury’s decision. Meanwhile Clarence grabbed a cigarette butt that Mann had just stubbed out. That too was tested, and this time preliminary results showed that his DNA could potentially match some found at the crime scene. Still, prosecutors refused to admit they had convicted the wrong man. “I don’t think these are bad people,” says Godsey of the prosecution’s resistance. “They get tunnel vision.”

Godsey appealed to Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, who urged prosecutors to dismiss the charges. Last December tests came back showing that a pubic hair found at the scene was a perfect match for Mann. (The investigation of Mann, who has not yet been charged, is continuing.) The next day Clarence walked out of Mansfield Correctional Institution a free man. “While incarcerated, I didn’t have time to be angry,” he said two months later. “I’m starting to feel a little bit of that anger and be very emotional at times. At the same time, though, I’m a forgiving person.” In May Clarence won a settlement of just over $1 million from the state.

Yet his transition back into society after seven years behind bars has been far from smooth. He and Melinda split up, and last month he filed for divorce. (Both are now seeing other people, with Melinda engaged to Patrick Dawson.) But as Melinda points out, her goal was never to get her husband back. “I wasn’t going to leave Clarence in prison for the rest of his life for something he didn’t do, and I couldn’t see myself going through the rest of my life not knowing who killed my mom,” she says. “In the end, it was for justice for both of them.”

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