ELYRIA - Joel Covender will get a new trial in a 20-year-old case that saw him serve 11 years behind bars after being convicted of molesting two stepchildren.
Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Miraldi granted defense attorney W. Scott Ramsey's motion Tuesday for a new trial for Covender, whose defense has long argued that the man's former stepdaughter was coerced by relatives into testifying against him and that counseling records from the 1990s indicated she had a problem with lying.
Covender was visibly moved by the decision, putting his head down as he quietly sobbed at the defense table seated next to Ramsey.
"I've lost 20 years of my life," Covender said outside the courtroom following the hearing. "I just want to have my life back, or at least what's left of it."
"I said all along these were false allegations," Covender said as family members wept and smiled nearby. "I never did this. I want to let justice be served."
Covender was convicted in 1996 of sexually molesting his former stepson and stepdaughter in the early 1990s. He has been waging a legal battle since his release from prison in 2007 to have molestation charges against him dismissed or to secure a new trial.
As he had done in earlier proceedings, Lorain County Assistant Prosecutor Peter Gauthier argued there was insufficient evidence to grant Covender's request for a new trial.
County Prosecutor Dennis Will said later that his office would review a transcript of Tuesday's hearing before deciding whether to appeal Miraldi's decision.
The hearing saw testimony from Lois Fridenstine, a clinical social worker, who had done some counseling with the stepdaughter in the 1990s.
After a 15-minute recess during which Fridenstine looked over notes from the case file, she told the court she had limited recollections of counseling the girl during a six-month period when another case worker who had handled the case was on maternity leave.
Fridenstine said the file contained two of her signatures.
One was attached to a 90-day review and service plan for the girl.
Another was attached to a progress report that requested a doctor's evaluation of the girl and stated she had behavioral problems, including lying.
The lack of further records and documentation in the file puzzled Fridenstine, who had trouble recalling specifics of the case.
"The lack of records makes no sense to me," Fridenstine said. "There seems to be paperwork missing."
Case records reviewed in court Tuesday indicated the girl was counseled from December 1993 to May 1996.
Records were later transferred to the Nord Center after the former Center for Children and Youth Services ceased to exist.
Covender's former stepdaughter had given written consent to have the case files examined and used in court.
Now adults, both stepchildren told the Ohio Parole Board in 2007 they were not sexually assaulted. Their statements helped lead to Covender's release from prison the same year.
Will agreed at the time to drop the charges originally brought by Covender's stepson, who admitted to making up testimony of sexual abuse by the defendant.
The prosecutor's office declined to dismiss charges brought by Covender's step-daughter, who later claimed she had no memory of sexual abuse by him.
Miraldi acknowledged records in the case may not be complete and said efforts would be made to search for more data and to locate the other counselor who worked on the girl's case.
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