Possible Innocence Case Highlights Concerns About Ohio's Death Penalty

Tyrone Noling (pictured) is an inmate on Ohio’s death row whose guilt has been called into doubt by a lack of physical evidence, recanting witnesses and refusal by the state to conduct a DNA test.  Andrew Cohen, writing in a recent issue of The Atlantic, compared Noling's case to that of Troy Davis, who was executed in Georgia in 2011, despite doubts about his guilt.  Noling was convicted of the 1990 murders of an elderly couple in their home. Initially, there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, and no witnesses against him. When an aggressive investigator took over the case, some witnesses began giving statements against Noling.  Cohen reports that all of these witnesses have since recanted their statements, claiming they were pressured by the prosecutor.  In 2009, 13 years after the original trial, prosecutors provided defense attorneys with handwritten police notes from the investigations in 1990 in which a witness identified another man as having committed the murders. The state is currently refusing DNA testing of evidence collected from the crime scene that might place this man at the scene of the crime.

While denying relief partly because of restrictions imposed on federal habeas corpus, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit expressed serious concerns about Noling's conviction:

Nevertheless, we pause for a moment to highlight our concern about Noling's death sentence in light of questions raised regarding his prosecution. Noling was not indicted until five years after the Hartigs' murders when a new local prosecutor took office. That new prosecutor pursued the cold murder case with suspicious vigor according to Noling's accusers, who have since recanted their stories and now claim that they only identified Noling as the murderer in the first place because they were threatened by the prosecutor.  In addition to the identifications being potentially coerced, there is absolutely no physical evidence linking Noling to the murders, and there are other viable suspects that the prosecutor chose not to investigate or did not know of at the time.

. . .

 As long as our justice system depends on men and women to make decisions, it will invariably make mistakes. We know not whether it has made one here where Ohio sends Noling to his final reckoning, but our duty requires us to soberly affirm the district court where no constitutional error occurred as to warrant habeas relief.

(Noling v. Bradshaw, No. 07-3989, 6th Cir., June 29, 2011).

Noling is awaiting a decision from the Ohio Supreme Court regarding testing of materials collected from the crime scene for DNA evidence.

(A. Cohen, "Is Ohio Keeping Another Innocent Man on Death Row?" The Atlantic, January 31, 2012).  See InnocenceJoe D'Ambrosio was recently exonerated from death row in Ohio after the prosecution had withheld critical evidence from the defense.