A judge will consider new evidence in the case of a New York man who has spent 16 years in an Ohio prison after a jury found him guilty of aggravated murder based on statements from an admitted crack addict who since has recanted his incriminating testimony.
In an opinion issued Monday, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that Alfred Cleveland of the New York City borough of Queens has “a credible claim of actual innocence” and that jurors surely wouldn’t have convicted him had they known all the facts.
The panel overturned a lower court judge’s decision not to consider the new evidence because it wasn’t filed in a timely manner.
Now, the judge will have to consider the new evidence and decide whether Cleveland deserves a new trial. It’s unclear how long that could take.
“He’s very excited,” said Jennifer Paschen Bergeron, Cleveland’s attorney who works at the Cincinnati-based Ohio Innocence Project, which has helped 10 wrongfully convicted Ohio inmates obtain freedom.
“It has been an ordeal,” Bergeron said. “It’s been a battle just to get someone to consider the evidence as we now know it.”
Prosecutor Jerri Fosnaught with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office did not immediately respond to a question Monday about whether she would appeal Monday’s ruling.
Cleveland, who turned 43 Monday, was convicted in 1996 of killing 22-year-old Marsha Blakely in Lorain and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison, based largely on testimony from a man named William Avery Jr.
At trial, prosecutor Jonathan Rosenbaum told jurors that Cleveland ordered three others to kill Blakely for failing to pay a gang that was funneling cocaine from New York to Lorain, and Avery testified that he witnessed it.
Blakely had been beaten, had 25 “torture” stab wounds on her neck and face and had her throat slashed.
Shortly after jurors read the guilty verdict, Cleveland proclaimed his innocence and told the judge that someday the truth would be known.
Avery, who got a reward for his testimony and owed $5,000 to Cleveland at the time of the killing, came forward in 2006 and gave a sworn statement that Cleveland was innocent, saying that he wanted the truth to come out because he was off drugs and was trying to get right with God.
Avery also signed an affidavit saying that it was his father who told him to go to police with a story that Cleveland and three other men killed Blakely.
“All of this was a lie,” Avery said in the affidavit. “I never witnessed the murder of Marsha Blakely, was not with her or Al Cleveland the night she was murdered.”
The other new evidence in Cleveland’s case includes testimony from a man who grew up with him in New York who says that he saw Cleveland in that state on the night of Blakely’s killing.