Derrick Wheatt and Laurese Glover addressing the audience
Derrick Wheatt (left) and Laurese Glover addressing the audience.

New law students hear from men freed by Ohio Innocence Project

Two men sat on stools in a ballroom at Tinkham Veale University Center earlier this week, passing a microphone back and forth as they fielded questions from 160 students entering their first year at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

It was Day One of orientation, and the “1L’s,” as they’re referred to for short, were already learning a harsh lesson about justice—and how they might soon be working to help others victimized by the legal system, like Derrick Wheatt and Laurese Glover.

It was exactly one week since Wheatt, Glover and a third man, Eugene Johnson, were finally cleared of a conviction for a murder they didn’t commit.

Finally, after burning 18 years in prison. Convicted when they were just 17.

Working with colleagues at the University of Cincinnati’s Ohio Innocence Project (OIP), Carmen Naso, a senior instructor of law, Judith Lipton, associate dean of Experiential Education, and their students in Case Western Reserve’s Milton A. Kramer Law Clinic Center, got their convictions overturned.

“When the system gets it wrong, it’s always a disaster,” Naso told the audience, which also included about 40 new international students. “All the students who have worked on Innocence Project cases in the last five years have been profoundly moved to change this system.

“That could be you,” he said.

The OIP and CWRU law clinic represented Wheatt and Glover and plan to work together on more cases. Several Case Western Reserve law students helped with legal briefs and other preparation in their cases over four semesters. Johnson had other legal representation.

“The East Cleveland Three,” as the case became known in the media, centered on the murder of Clifford Hudson on Strathmore Avenue in East Cleveland, on Feb. 10, 1995.

Key to their conviction was the testimony of a 14-year-old “eyewitness,” who in 2004 recanted her statement, and information from police reports that could have helped the men was not disclosed to the defense.

“The conduct of lawyers was a huge issue in this case,” Lipton, the Honorable Blanche E. Krupansky and Frank W. Vargo Jr. Professor of Law, told the 1L’s, who were scheduled to review an appellate decision in this case today (Thursday). “That’s something we’re going to talk a lot about over the next three years—lawyer conduct.”

The case was scheduled to go to trial Aug. 15, but Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty asked Cuyahoga Common Pleas Judge Nancy Margaret Russo to dismiss it after the 8th District Court of Appeals upheld her 2015 decision to overturn the convictions.

In a question-and-answer session following Naso’s overview of the case, the entering law class learned first-hand about the personal cost when the justice system fails.

The students heard how, although the men were innocent, there’s this glaring 20-year employment gap that must be explained in any job interview. Wheatt works in a warehouse; Glover in retail.

They learned that the men weren’t offered services to reintegrate into society or any formal apology or compensation.

How the dreams and aspirations they may have had at 17 are now different.

And how they don’t hold animosity for a county prosecutor at the time, who, it was learned later, had held back information that could have helped their defense cases.

“If I have that in my heart,” Glover said, “then I will never be happy.”

After the presentation, Lipton said she hoped the first-year law students came away from the experience with two important points.

“They’re going to spend the whole first year reading appellate decisions, and I hope this will help them at least think about the stories behind the judges’ decisions, that these are people’s lives,” she said. “The second thing is that, from the very minute they get here, they think about what it means to be a lawyer and what kind of lawyer they want to be.”