April 18, 2014

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Nancy Smith afraid of losing freedom again

LORAIN — Nancy Smith said she lay in bed Friday night unable to sleep, fearing that her freedom would be snatched away from her at any moment.

“Is somebody just going to pull up and tell me they’re taking me back?” the 51-year-old former Head Start bus driver said Saturday during a sometimes tearful interview at her attorney’s office.

Smith was released on bond Wednesday after Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Burge ruled that he would resentence her on her 1994 child molestation conviction because of a technical error in her sentencing entry.

It will take about two months to complete the presentence investigation Burge ordered for Smith and she said she intends to use that time to prove her innocence.

“I didn’t do this,” Smith said. “I am innocent completely of all these charges.”

A life shattered

In 1993, Smith was a Head Start bus driver, a job she said she took because she wanted to provide for the four children that she was raising as a single mother. It was a job she said she enjoyed.

“I was very good at my job, a very positive role model,” she said.

That all changed in May 1993 when the first of several parents came forward complaining that their child had been molested.

Scrutiny quickly fell on Smith, who was accused of taking her 4- and 5-year-old bus riders to the Lorain home of Joseph Allen, where the pair allegedly molested and abused them.

Jack Bradley, Smith’s attorney, said that at the time, there was hysteria over accused child molesters that virtually guaranteed Smith’s conviction despite serious problems with the case, including mishandled interviews of the alleged victims by police.

“There was no sex abuse in this case,” Bradley said. “There was abuse of these children through the way the parents and investigators handled the case.”

Smith said there was no way, given the procedures for dropping the students off at school, that she could have taken the kids to Allen’s house.

“Something as simple as a camera on a bus could have cleared me,” she said.

But Smith and Allen were convicted following a nine-day jury trial. Allen received five consecutive life sentences, while Smith was sentenced to 30 to 90 years in prison by then-county Judge Lynett McGough.

“I had a life and it was taken from me for a crime I didn’t commit,” Smith said.

In prison

The Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville is a lonely place, Smith said.

“You have no one who knows you, no one who cares for you,” she said. “You have nothing.”

Smith said she kept mostly to herself during the nearly 15 years she spent in the prison.

The hardest part, she said, was after visits from her family.

“They get up and leave, and I have to sit there and watch,” she said.

Mostly, Smith said, she prayed and did what she could to clear her name. She also tried to keep busy.

Smith said she worked in the prison’s horticulture and culinary arts programs and later resumed painting.

“It was something I gave up when I went to prison because I didn’t have the passion,” she said.

Although she made a few friends on the inside, Smith said she kept mostly to herself. Sometimes the other prisoners and guards made things even harder, she said.

“Some scream and yell at you and talk to you like you’re a dog,” she said. “Some talk to you like you’re human.”

But Smith said she never wavered in her refusal to confess to the crimes she was convicted of, even when it may have freed her from prison.

 “I’m not going to say I did this so I can go home,” Smith said she told the Ohio Parole Board officer who interviewed her in 2007.

The Parole Board refused to release her because she was in denial.

If Bradley fails in his efforts to win a new trial for Smith based in part on new evidence, she will have to return to prison, even if Burge gives her the minimum sentence of five to 25 years. Under the law in effect at the time of her conviction, she would remain in prison until the Parole Board releases her or she’s served the maximum of her indefinite sentence.

Smith said she will continue to deny she did anything wrong even then.

And although she largely declined to talk about Allen, who isn’t eligible for parole until 2056, Smith said she believes he’s innocent as well. She said she didn’t even know Allen before they were charged in the case.

On the outside

A week ago, Smith said, she never would have guessed she would be with her family. Bradley had told her that she would probably be going back to Marysville after her hearing Wednesday.

Now that she is free — at least temporarily — Smith is catching up with her four children and eight grandchildren, one of whom she met for the first time Wednesday.

“I can’t tell you what an awesome feeling it is to wake up to your children and grandchildren,” she said.

Smith is also readjusting to life. She doesn’t have a driver’s license, even though before she was locked up, she said her commercial driver’s license enabled her to drive everything but a semi. She plans to get a learner’s permit and renew her license while she’s free.

Smith is staying with family — although not in Lorain — and doesn’t know where most of the things she owned in her previous life are. She has photographs and other mementos that stayed with family, but she isn’t worried about the rest.

She said she’s lost other things as well.

“Any faith I had in the justice system is gone,” Smith said.

Meanwhile, prosecutors, who had argued that the technical flaw that released Smith could have been corrected with a new sentencing entry instead of a new hearing, are examining their appeal options.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.