By Katherine Longjohn
COLUMBUS, OH – Continuing the momentum from their three big wins in 2021, Ohio’s Wrongful Conviction Project has plans to take on even more cases moving into the new year.
One of the big achievements of Ohio’s WCP came in October of 2021 when, after 10 years of working on the case, Kim Hoover—who was wrongfully convicted of murder in 2002—had her conviction thrown out.
According to The Columbus Dispatch, after spending nearly two decades in prison, Hoover had this to say of the WCP upon her release: “I owe my life to Joe (Bodenhamer) and Joanna (Sanchez) and their staff. They’re amazing. I don’t believe I’d be out if it weren’t for them.”
Hoover was convicted of the murder of a nine-month-old baby after medical experts testified in her trial that the child’s cause of death was shaken-baby syndrome, (the aggressive shaking of a baby or toddler according the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome), which they believed the child sustained while entrusted in Hoover’s care, according to The Columbus Dispatch.
However, in 2018 court reports show that Dr. Patrick Fardal, a Dublin pathologist, found new evidence that the skull fracture the child sustained while in Hoover’s care, was actually a previous injury that had been healing but began to bleed again just days before her death, according to The Columbus Dispatch.
With this new evidence, Dr. Fardal, who had conducted the child’s autopsy and testified against Hoover in the 2003 trial, recanted his testimony, saying that at the present time he could not conclude the child’s injuries were definitely sustained while in Hoover’s care, according to AP News.
After spending nearly two decades behind bars for a murder she was wrongfully convicted of, Hoover called the WCP her “only hope,” because while incarcerated she did not have access to the same resources the project provided, according to The Columbus Dispatch.
With humble beginnings, the WCP was started by Ohio Public Defender Tim Young with one attorney, one investigator and a select few law students.
With the recent change in staffing and state lawmakers granting a larger budget for the Ohio Public Defender’s Office, the WCP has quadrupled the number of full-time attorneys from one to four, according to the Office of the Ohio Public Defender and The Columbus Dispatch.
Each year the WCP screens hundreds of applications asking for assistance and, with the increase in attorneys, the director of Ohio’s WCP, Joanna Sanchez, said the project is now primed to take on more cases this year, according to the Office of the Ohio Public Defender and The Columbus Dispatch.
The Ohio WCP typically focuses on cases that involve “factors known to cause wrongful convictions, including false or misleading forensic evidence, official misconduct, false confessions, mistaken eyewitness identification, and perjury/false accusation,” according to the Office of the Ohio Public Defender.
One such example of a case the WCP has taken that exemplifies the common factors in wrongful convictions cases is the 2006 conviction of Kenny Phillips and Michael Sutton for allegedly shooting at Cleveland police officers, according to 19 News.
The Ohio 8th District Court of Appeals found that this conviction “was based solely on the alleged eyewitness testimony of two police officers that appellants shot the victims and shot at one of the officers.”
However, this testimony was later proved unreliable with Donald Caster, an attorney with Ohio’s WCP, saying: “Two Cleveland police officers, one current and one former have come forward and said the original testimony from other officers doesn’t make sense from what they saw,” according to 19 News.
The Ohio 8th District Court of Appeals found “the newly discovered eyewitness evidence from two officers also present at the scene conflicts with the testimony of the original officers and supports the testimony of the appellants that they did not commit the crimes alleged…appellants are entitled to a new trial.”
After 15 years of being convicted on unreliable eyewitness testimony, Phillips and Sutton are now able to have a new trial, after WCP efforts.
With cases taking typically eight to 12 years of active litigation, this work takes immense patience and determination, but Sanchez insists “for (her), being able to help people whose voice has been silenced is really important. It will ensure that people are respected and their rights are upheld,” according to The Columbus Dispatch.
She added that “what keeps (her) doing this work is you get to know your clients and their families and their lives. Once we realize we have these problems in our system it’s hard to look away,” according to The Columbus Dispatch.