Saturday, July 19, 2003

Free after 26 years in prison, man was wrongly convicted

The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - A man sipped champagne with his family as he got his first taste of freedom after 26 years of wrongful imprisonment for a guard's murder during a bank robbery.

Gary Lamar James, 50, wore a suit as he walked out of the Franklin County jail Thursday. It was the first time he had worn one since being sentenced to death during his 1977 trial.

"From death row to here is a long way," James said on the sidewalk outside the jail. "It took a long time, but it's here."

James was freed on his signature without posting bond four days after passing a polygraph test administered by the Ohio State Highway Patrol. The test showed he was truthful in saying he did not kill security guard Berne Davis, 74, or participate in the Dec. 21, 1976, bank robbery.

Judge Patrick McGrath of Franklin County Common Pleas Court said the case will be formally dismissed Monday.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien agreed to dismiss all charges against James and his co-defendant, Timothy Howard.

Howard, 50, was freed April 23, a week after Common Pleas Judge Michael Watson overturned his conviction.

Watson ruled that a jury would not have found Howard guilty had evidence and testimony uncovered in recent years been available at trial.

O'Brien asked both James and Howard to take a polygraph test, but Howard refused.

James' attorney, James D. Owen, was thrilled with his client's release.

"It doesn't get any better," Owen said. "It's one of those cases that give meaning to my law practice."

Owen credited Princeton, N.J.-based Centurion Ministries with backing a seven-year legal fight.

James was the 31st wrongfully convicted prisoner that Centurion, a private, nonprofit organization at work since 1983, has helped free nationwide. The group takes just 20 cases out of 1,300 yearly requests.

Kate Hill-Germond of Centurion wiped away tears as James was reunited with his family.

"I can't help but think about all the years that were stolen from these guys," Hill-Germond said. "I'm angry and overjoyed at the same time."

James' sister, Audrey Whiting, was the first person to greet him outside the jail.

"He looked good," she said. "This has been a long time coming."

James and his family celebrated his release with lunch at a seafood restaurant.

James said his anger about his wrongful conviction nearly consumed him during his early years in prison. He got into fights and ended up in disciplinary confinement several times.

"If I think about it long enough now I still get angry," he said. "For the most part, the anger has burnt itself out."

James says he will live with Whiting while he looks for a job.

James and Howard, who were childhood friends, hugged after James' release. It was the first time they had seen each other in 19 years - since they were imprisoned at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility near Lucasville.

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