Man Regains Freedom After 23 Years Thanks to OIP
In February 1981, the Parsons family suffered a tragic loss. Barbara Parsons, the 41-year-old wife of Jim Parsons, was found dead inside her bedroom, having been beaten 15 times in the head by someone using a large, heavy object. No suspect was found at first. Then, 12 years later, Jim Parsons was arrested for the murder. Parsons was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. After 23 years incarcerated, however, his conviction was overturned thanks to the Ohio Innocence Program (OIP).
"The Ohio Innocence Project plays an important role in the legal education of all of our students. Not only do the students who directly represent the clients with Professor Mark Godsey and the staff attorneys learn valuable litigation skills, all of our students benefit from its commitment to justice and the rule of law that are at the heart of the U.S. Legal system,” says Cincinnati Law’s Dean Jennifer S. Bard, Nippert Professor of Law.
Parsons was recently released and is now living with family. His story, however, is a frightening one.
An Unfair Advantage
Immediately after Barbara Parsons’ murder, an investigation began. A just hour after the body was found at their Norwalk, OH home, Jim Parsons was with the police; he showed no signs of a struggle and his alibi was solid. The case went cold after it became obvious that he was not the criminal.
Years later, a new detective was assigned to the case and sent the suspected murder weapon and bed sheets to forensic scientist Michele Yezzo, who worked on the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, asking her to look for any matching patterns of blood.
While running these tests, Yezzo failed to fully document her procedures. She used a chemical on the sheets which she claimed makes blood stains easier to see. However, it fades after several hours and she neglected to photograph each piece of evidence. Yezzo said she found matching patterns between the weapon and the sheets, but due to lack of documentation, she is the only one who ever saw it.
Even so, the court ruled against Parsons. He was found guilty and was sent to jail.
What the defense did not know at the time was that the State was withholding information. Around the same time that she was testifying, Yezzo was under severe job pressure. A few months prior to her testimony against Mr. Parsons, she was suspended from work for making threats against co-workers. She also displayed other signs that called her mental stability into question.
“About three years before she testified against Parsons,” said Parsons’ OIP attorney Donald Caster, ’03, “there was a memo that was written by her supervisor that said the consensus in the lab is that her mental health issues are affecting her work in the lab and that she would stretch the truth to satisfy a law enforcement agency.”
When Caster found that information, he placed a call to Dr. Scott Bresler, Clinical Director of Forensic Psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
Bresler, who routinely conducts fitness-for-duty evaluations, evaluated Yezzo’s likely mental state at the time of the trial and through this determined her ability to work should have been called into question long before the Parsons trial.
The law requires that the State must turn over everything that could help a defendant before trial. Withholding this information about Yezzo was breaking the law, resulting in an unfair trial. Twenty-three years later, Jim Parsons finally got the hearing he deserved.
“Our star witness, whose subjective judgements are entirely what the case is about, is perhaps mentally unstable. And not only that, when we brought her in and she testified at the hearing in the Parsons’ case, she agreed that every day she was coming in thinking that she was going to be disciplined for her erratic conduct,” Caster said. “So what better way for a forensic scientist to help save their job than to solve a cold murder case?”
Alex Barengo, ’17, an OIP Fellow who worked on the case, seconded this reasoning. He stated that the prosecution was “riddled with reasonable doubts” due to the late arrest of Mr. Parsons and Yezzo’s precarious position with her employer.
Fighting for Freedom
OIP investigations can take years to complete, and often the fellows working on the cases pass them down to others. In fact, Parsons’ case spanned ten years, 21 law students, and predated Caster’s time with the OIP.
Former OIP Fellow Jackie Welp, ’16, said this was the most frustrating aspect. “He is and was very sick and growing older as the process continued,” she said, recalling how slow the procedure sometimes moved. “It was very challenging to stay upbeat when it seemed like the testing would never be done.”
Barengo gave credit to the previous fellows, saying that the investigation of the case was already completed and he and his partner, Miranda Anandappa, ’17, had the responsibility of making sure everything was in place so nothing would go wrong in court.
After all the information was gathered, Caster filed for post-conviction relief and a new trial motion, telling the judge that Mr. Parsons was actually innocent and his trial was made unfair by the withholding of evidence by the state of Ohio.
The hearing, which lasted about a day, included testimony from witnesses, scientists, one of Mr. Parsons’ daughters, and several people from the State. A week later, Caster learned that the judge had ruled to overturn the verdict.
“The most rewarding part came a few weeks after the hearing up in Huron County,” Barengo expressed. “One of Mr. Parsons’ daughters sent us a picture of him at home with his family.”
Author: Michelle Flanagan ’18, Communication Intern