Isiah Andrews is probably the only 82 year old in Ohio who is happy to be outside and does not care that there is a pandemic going on. That’s because, thanks to the work of the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) at the University of Cincinnati, he was just freed after spending 45 years in jail for a murder he did not commit.
In 1974, the body of Regina Andrews was discovered near a Cleveland swim club. She had been brutally stabbed 11 times and was found semi-nude, wrapped in bloody hotel linens. The Andrews couple had been staying at the Colonial House Hotel and shaky eyewitness testimony of a maid staying there was the only evidence that linked Andrews to the crime. She claimed she saw Andrews place a large object wrapped in bedsheets in the trunk of his car shortly after hearing an argument at their hotel room. Andrews fully cooperated with the police and maintained his innocence from the very beginning. In fact, he had searched frantically for his wife when he noticed she was missing after coming back to the hotel room. He had spoken to the maid and asked her if she saw his wife. She told him maybe she was arrested because police had often arrested women at the hotel on suspicion of prostitution. He called Regina’s mother, who came right over to the hotel, with other family members.
At trial, the maid suddenly added that she had noticed the bed had been stripped of its linens. When confronted with the fact that she had never mentioned this important fact before, she stated that she did not remember why but she only told police some of the things she remembered about that day. Andrew’s mother in law testified on his behalf however that when she got there, the bed was made, the room was neat, there was no sign of a struggle and there was no blood anywhere including on the mattress.
He was convicted at trial and sentenced to life in prison.
Nobody had bothered to test semen or blood collected from the body for DNA. The OIP filed motions to have the testing done and finally in 2019 the motion was granted. But the DNA had so badly deteriorated over all that time that it was untestable. Normally, that would have ended the pursuit, but what was uncovered was even more distressing than what a DNA test would reveal.
The Cleveland Police Department file showed several documents and pieces of evidence withheld from Andrews and his lawyers back in 1975 pointing to another suspect named Willie Watts. Unlike Andrews, there was lots of evidence pointing to Watts:
*Police traced the bloody bedsheets Regina Andrews was found wrapped in not to the Colonial House Hotel but to a Howard Johnson’s hotel where Watts had been staying;
*Police learned that Watts had stripped the bed in his room of its sheets that same morning – likely where the maid got her additional trial facts;
*The victim’s body was found less than a quarter-mile from the home of Watts’ mother, where he had been living
*Watts’ mother told police she had bailed him out of the county jail two days prior and kicked him out of her home the day before;
*On the same day the victim’s body was discovered, Watts broke into his mother’s home and stole valuables.;
*Watts’ mother warned police he was contacting a friend named “Ronald” to provide him with an alibi, according to the report. Sure enough, a pill bottle belonging to a “Ron Martin” was found by the victim’s head;
*Police arrested Watts and wrote in a police report “It is our opinion that this crime was committed by Willie H. Watts, who is apparently attempting to sell his mothers [sic] coat and her other valuables to get money to get away from this city;”
*Watts who provided them with other alibi witnesses for the three hour time period that the coroner said the crime was committed. Andrews unfortunately had no provable alibi for that time;
*Watts was released when his alleged alibi witnesses confirmed his story. Police then turned their attention to Andrews.
This new evidence would be enough of course to bring lots of doubt in Andrews’ trial and suspicion towards Watts. But also uncovered was a report that after Andrews’ arrest, the coroner revised the time of death to a time period for which Watts had no alibi and for which Andrews had an airtight alibi already confirmed by police. But they were stuck as they already had the witnesses identify Andrew – so what to do? They buried all of the above evidence and never turned it over to Andrews or his lawyer.
This case reveals the danger of a “suspect-based” investigation as opposed to a fact-based investigation. It shows how dangerous eyewitness testimony can be. It shows how once a police department pursues a theory and arrests a suspect based on that theory, they will refuse to turn back on it or admit that they were wrong regardless of the consequences.
“The consequences” here are that an innocent man was robbed of 45 years of his life. Congratulations to Mr. Andrews for persevering and never giving up. Congrats to Brian Howe, Professor Mark Godsey and all the lawyers and students at OIP and the University of Cincinnati Clinic that worked to get the testing that led to the discovery of the hidden police files.
But the Court did not go all the way to exonerate him. It only vacated his conviction, ordered a new trial and let him out but with a GPS-ankle monitor. As if an 82 year old man who had finally established all of the above and had already served 45 years in prison was now going to run. Shame on Judge Robert McClelland for imposing this restriction.
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