CLEVELAND, Ohio — A Cleveland man whose 1995 murder conviction was overturned after a court found that prosecutors withheld evidence during his trial has officially been deemed wrongfully imprisoned.
Common Pleas Court Judge Daniel Gaul held in his six-page opinion handed down Thursday that Anthony Lemons fit a new state law that loosened the definition of a wrongfully imprisoned person. But Gaul made it clear that he was not happy that he had to make such a finding.
“Although the Court may not fully agree with the outcome in this matter, it is bound by and will diligently follow the law and legal precedent,” Gaul wrote in the order.
Gaul’s ruling marks what could be the final step in a five-year legal battle for Lemons to clear his name and seek damages from the Ohio Court of Claims for the 18 years he spent behind bars.
Lemons, in a phone interview during a break at his job at King Nut in Solon, thanked each of the attorneys that worked on his case: Sara Gedeon, Al Gerhardstein, David Malik and Kevin Spellacy.
“Today is a blessing,” Lemons said. “It’s a life-changing moment.”
Lemons received a life sentence after he was convicted in 1995 of killing Eric B. Sims based largely on a witness’ identification of him as the shooter. The witness identified Lemons from a police line-up based on a pair of Nike sneakers he was wearing. The witness said the shooter was wearing the same shoes at the time of the killing.
During an appeal of his sentence, lawyers discovered that Cleveland police possessed a report from Nike before the trial that said the type of sneakers the witness said Lemons was wearing were not released until after the killing. Another report discussed other potential suspects in the shooting, but neither report was turned over to Lemons’ defense attorneys.
The conviction was overturned in 2012 and prosecutors eventually dropped the charges against Lemons instead of seeking a new trial.
Gaul initially ruled against Lemons’ request to be declared wrongfully imprisoned and actually innocent. The 8th District Court of Appeals overturned Gaul’s decision and found Lemons to be wrongfully imprisoned in 2017, but upheld Gaul’s denial of his claim for actual innocence.
Gaul cited the 8th District’s opinion in his ruling Thursday, and said he would not “distrub the criminal court order” and overturn another judge’s determination that Lemons was wrongfully imprisoned.
Lemons’ attorneys said in a joint statement that they are thrilled with Gaul’s decision.
“Not a shred of forensic evidence ever tied him to the murder of Eric Sims and his identification as a suspect was tainted by evidence withheld by the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor,” the statement read. “Justice can now finally be served.”
Lemons said he was glad to have hopes the ruling will allow him to work with other wrongfully imprisoned men he served alongside in prison to form a re-entry program.