CLEVELAND — Alfred Cleveland admitted to running drugs and stealing cars during a hearing in federal court Tuesday, but he denied killing Marsha Blakely, the crime for which he is serving a prison term of 20 years to life.
“I’m not guilty. I didn’t commit these crimes,” Cleveland said when asked if he would admit to killing Blakely in 1991 if it meant he would be able to win parole. Cleveland isn’t eligible for parole until March 2015.
Cleveland, 44, was in court for a hearing on evidence his attorneys believe could exonerate him in the brutal slaying of Blakely, a crack addict and prostitute whose body was found behind Westgate Shopping Center in Lorain about 9:15 a.m. Aug. 8, 1991. Blakely was stabbed multiple times, her throat was slit and she had been run over by a car.
“I never met her before in my life,” Cleveland said of Blakely.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that Cleveland was entitled to a hearing on whether newly discovered evidence, including that Cleveland was in New York at the time of the murder, would exonerate him.
Over the objections of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office, which contended the issue had already been examined during Cleveland’s trial, the appeals court wrote that he “has presented a credible claim of actual innocence.”
Cleveland’s lawyers have pointed to airline records, a meeting Cleveland had with his probation officer in New York, a friend who claims to have seen him in New York just hours before the killing and phone records as proof their client wasn’t in Lorain when Blakely was killed.
Another key piece of evidence that Cleveland’s attorneys have relied on is the recantation of William Avery Jr., a key witness against him and three other men, Benson Davis, Lenworth Edwards and John Edwards, who are also serving time for killing Blakely.
Police and prosecutors have acknowledged that Avery’s story shifted during the investigation and the trials, but they also contend that his knowledge of the crime scene evidence made him credible.
Former Lorain police Detective Geno Taliano said that even without looking at crime scene photos, Avery was able to fill in some of the gaps in the evidence gathered by police. For instance, Taliano said Avery was able to link a bloody jacket police were given to Lenworth Edwards, who Avery claimed Blakely gave a bloody nose to during a struggle in the apartment of Floyd Epps.
“If it was simply his statement to me, I would have walked away,” Taliano said.
On Tuesday, Cleveland also denied involvement in the killing of Epps, who knew Blakely and whose battered body was found a few hours before Blakely was discovered. Although police have long suspected the two slayings are connected, no one has been charged with Epps’ death.
Avery first tried to recant his testimony in the midst of a trial in the Blakely killing after then-Assistant Lorain County Prosecutor Jonathan Rosenbaum said he refused to pay the $10,000 Avery demanded for his testimony.
When Avery first refused to testify in the case, Rosenbaum said the judge in the case ordered him jailed. It didn’t take long, he said, for Avery to begin calling prosecutors from jail, but Rosenbaum said he refused to talk to him in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
“I took that position so no one could accuse us of what they’re apparently accusing us of here today,” he said.
Cleveland’s lawyers have suggested that Rosenbaum threatened Avery and other witnesses to testify the way he wanted, an accusation the former prosecutor has vehemently denied.
Avery recanted his testimony to the FBI in 2004 and again in 2006 when he swore out an affidavit for a private investigator working for Cleveland. In the affidavit, Avery said he lied about Cleveland’s involvement so he could claim reward money being offered in the case.
Ohio Assistant Attorney General Jerri Fosnaught said there was no reason to believe Avery’s most -recent version of events.
“Avery’s recantation is not reliable,” Fosnaught said. “The recantation itself is riddled with lies.”
Avery refused to testify during a hearing in 2008 before Lorain County Common Pleas Judge Christopher Rothgery after he was warned that he could be charged with perjury if he changed his original testimony.
State prosecutors also challenged evidence that a piece of rubber found at the scene of Epps’ death had Blakely’s blood on it. The appeals court wrote that evidence suggested that Blakely was killed before Epps.
That put the timeframe she was killed between midnight and 1:25 a.m. on Aug. 8, 1991, when Epps’ body was found.
But Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification experts testified Tuesday that new tests showed the blood on the rubber belonged to a man, likely Epps, not Blakely. They also said rules prevented them from comparing a blood sample taken from a victim to a national DNA database.