Finding justice and truth in our criminal justice system can take endless interviews, trials, briefs, motions, appeals and years. Sometimes, when all is said and done, your gut just tells you where justice lies.

"From the first minute I talked to him, you understand there is no way David (Ayers) could have murdered a woman. There is just no way," says Ryan McGraw. "I left the first meeting thinking, we have to get this man out of jail."

"From the start I believed him," agrees Julie Kathman. "That was rare for me among the 25 other cases we handled. He was the one I didn't doubt for a second."

A Decade Behind Bars

Kathman is a Dayton native and graduate of Otterbein University; McGraw, from Finneytown, graduated from Ohio State.

The two third-year law students were among the student fellows with the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, who worked on appeals for DNA testing in the case of David Ayers of Cleveland, sentenced in 1999 to life in prison with no parole for the murder of an elderly woman.

On Sept. 12, Ayers, 54, left prison a free man.

He was not the only one whose life was changed. McGraw calls it the most important thing he's ever done as a person. For Kathman, it exposed flaws in the system to which she's dedicating her career.

After spending more than a decade behind bars for the murder of 76-year-old Dorothy Brown, who lived at an apartment complex where Ayers also lived and worked as the security guard, Ayers became part of the success story of the Ohio Innocence Project.

Ayers is the 12th inmate whom UC law students helped free as part of the project, founded in 2003. Funded mostly through private donations, the Ohio Innocence provides remarkable hands-on experience for the 20 students accepted each term to work on cases under the direction of staff attorneys. Nationally, Innocence Projects have helped free more than 250 wrongfully convicted inmates, often by getting court orders for DNA testing.

Hands-on Experience

Students work on all aspects of a case "” interviewing witnesses, filing briefs, keeping an inmate in the loop. McGraw and Kathman both stress they played only a small part in the Ayers case. By the time they joined the project, appeals were well underway. Their main role was maintaining a relationship of trust with Ayers and keeping him apprised of appeals.

The two law students were there when Ayers tearfully walked from prison in September into the arms of his sister and friends. Clearly, that kind of scene leaves a mark on a law student. Even many seasoned defense lawyers cannot objectively claim they have freed an innocent man.

"I've told people this is by far the most significant thing I've been able to do as a person, not to mention as a lawyer," McGraw says. "It's something I'll forever cherish."

The Ayers conviction smacked of troublesome details from the beginning. The jury convicted him even though pubic hairs found on the victim's body matched neither the victim nor Ayers, based on an unreliable microscopic analysis (DNA testing was not routinely done at the time). The main testimony against Ayers was his alleged confession to another inmate.

After years of appeals, the Cuyahoga County Public Defender's Office was able to win a new trial for Ayers when the Sixth District US Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati held that the
jailhouse snitch testimony should have been excluded. It cited numerous errors in the way police and prosecutors handled the informant, including providing him with the details of the case and sending him back to talk to Ayers.

In 2008, while that appeal was ongoing, the Ohio Innocence Project took the case. It eventually won a court order that state-of-the-art DNA testing methods should be used on preserved evidence. The new trial ruling came down before the court-ordered testing could be done. However, a new prosecutor, looking at the evidence to possibly retry Ayers, went ahead and conducted testing, which did not find Ayers' DNA at the crime scene. The charges were dropped. Investigators have not been able to identify the DNA.

Lack of Evidence

"Without the snitch testimony, and without any DNA evidence linking David to the crime, they finally acknowledged they got the wrong guy," McGraw says.

Kathman and McGraw developed a bond with Ayers. And Ayers says the law students he worked with over the years were saviors "” they kept his spirit alive.

"It was unbelievable how they stayed on my case," says Ayers, who now lives with his sister in Cleveland. "Over time you can lose hope. It was inspirational to know I had someone out there who believed in me and was working on my case."

The students were impressed with Ayers' patience and stoic demeanor. "He was the sweetest man, very accepting of what we had to say," says Kathman.

"He was frustrated from time to time, because of the progress," McGraw says. "He would keep saying, "¢Why can't they do the DNA test? It won't be me.'"

Indeed, that frustration is experienced not only by inmates, but throughout the legal defense community when it comes to DNA testing. Often prosecutors fight testing on older cases. It's not easy to get a court ruling to do testing, since there must be a showing that the DNA would result in a different verdict.

OIP Director Mark Godsey says the reluctance to test sometimes gets absurd. He remembers an Ohio case where the OIP offered to pay for the testing, but the prosecutor refused.

"We litigated for months and lost. Then we went to the court of appeals and litigated for more months. We finally won and it was sent for testing. It proved the man was guilty," Godsey says. "They wasted three years of the taxpayers' money litigating this when we would have paid for it in the beginning. It's ridiculous."

Of course, prosecutors have their own justifications for not jumping into DNA testing. They feel a duty to make sure justice is being served for the victims. DNA results are open to interpretation, often not as conclusive as the TV cop shows would lead one to believe. And at the foundation of our legal system is the belief that a jury verdict is sacrosanct.

Such DNA issues should be a thing of the past in Ohio. In 2010, Gov. Ted Strickland signed Senate Bill 77, called a model law in the nation, which gives the accused a clear path to testing and sets out comprehensive protocols for how police departments store and maintain biological evidence. It was a law passed in large part due to the OIP lobbying and casework.

Waiting and Work

For the law students, learning to deal with the frustrations and snail's pace of the criminal justice system were valuable lessons.

"It's a lot of waiting and a lot of work," says Kathman. "It's hard not seeing it pay off right away. DNA aside, the toughest cases were those with the "¢he-said-she said.' You really want to believe in someone, but in the end there is nothing you can do if no one recants testimony."

McGraw says his best lesson was learning patience. "The criminal justice system doesn't move at the pace we would like. There are a lot of ups and downs. Every time you turn a corner there is something that slams a door in your face. But seeing an innocent man walk out of prison makes it more than worth it. It's made law school in general worth it."

The experience was also an eye-opening look at the very real flaws of our criminal justice system. Kathman came to realize a simple truth: the workload of defense attorneys and prosecutors leads to mistakes.

"I was speaking with attorneys who have had hundreds of cases," Kathman says. "Their workload is so demanding it's hard to give your whole self to each of your clients. A lot of these convictions could have been avoided, if this wasn't the case."

Impact Differs

The Innocence Project work has a different impact on each of the students involved. Kathman says she plans to pursue a career in labor law. She acknowledges that criminal defense law "is not easy work. It is very emotional. You have to be cut out for that."

McGraw now sees himself becoming a defense attorney. "I went to law school wanting to be a prosecutor. But my work with the Innocence Project has led me to believe I can do more good as a defense attorney."

Meanwhile Ayers' attorneys in Cleveland are pursuing legal action that that would compensate him for his years in prison. In Ohio, such compensation is not automatic. For that to happen, a judge must declare that he was "wrongfully convicted." Ayers says it is another frustration, but over the years he had to learn to control his anger.

"I was incarcerated for no reason. So, yes, it was frustrating. I'm not going to say I was never bitter. But I learned to put it behind me and keep going forward. If not, this would all just build up inside me."

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