Thursday, July 17, 2003

26-year inmate may go free today

New evidence, polygraph defy 1977 murder conviction

The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - A man who served 26 years in prison for murder could be released today, days after a lie-detector test showed he was telling the truth when he said he didn't kill a security guard during a 1976 bank robbery.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien said "in the interest of justice" he will dismiss the charges after Gary Lemar James, 50, passed the Ohio State Highway Patrol's polygraph Tuesday.

James likely will be released from the Allen Correctional Institution on bond today. A hearing will be scheduled for Monday, when O'Brien plans to dismiss charges against James, said his attorney, James Owen.

O'Brien said he also will drop an appeal against James' co-defendant, Timothy Howard, also 50, who was freed April 23 when his conviction was overturned by a judge who cited evidence not disclosed or available during the 1977 trial.

The case against Howard and James unraveled when new evidence was uncovered, some through Freedom of Information Act requests filed by Howard. Fingerprints and conflicting witness statements made to the FBI were not made available to defense attorneys.

The polygraph test results, coupled with the other issues raised during Howard's appeal, persuaded O'Brien to recommend the charges against James be dropped.

"We don't want anybody in prison serving time for something they didn't do," O'Brien said.

Judge David Cain, who is assigned to James' case, is on vacation, O'Brien said. However, Judge Patrick McGrath agreed to contact Cain to see if he will verbally approve O'Brien's request to drop the charges.

James Owen, one of James' attorneys, said the case showed how hard it is to get judges to look at new evidence.

"I think that once someone gets wrongly convicted it's virtually impossible to remedy the situation," he said. "It's a travesty of justice."

Owen said that, for now, they want to enjoy the moment. But he will talk with the two defendants about getting restitution.

"They have never even broached the subject. They've been 100 percent focused on proving their innocence," Owen said.

Owen teamed with attorney Rick Ketcham and James McCloskey of Centurion Ministries of Princeton, N.J., to mount a seven-year crusade to free James and Howard. James will be the 31st inmate freed with Centurion's help, some of them from death row. O'Brien acknowledged that dismissing the charges means Columbus has an unsolved bank robbery and murder. But he said it would be impossible to reopen the case after all these years.

Audrey Whiting, James' sister, was gleeful when she got the news her brother will be released. James will live with her in Columbus.

"He should have been here a long time ago," Whiting said. "He wants a home-cooked meal, but he may not get that the first day."

Howard plans to be there when his childhood friend is released. They haven't seen each other for 19 years, since both were on death row. Their death sentences were commuted to life in prison when the death-penalty law in force at the time was ruled unconstitutional.

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