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The Wrong Side of Rights 

Alfred Cleveland is not a murderer. Alfred Cleveland has spent 16 years in prison for murder

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Jennifer Bergeron, a staff attorney with the Ohio Innocence Project, says that the state has until mid-May to file its return of writ - basically a response to Cleveland's lawyers' amended petition for a new trial. Paperwork ebbs and flows in the tides ahead, leaving mostly murky predictions for what will come in the future. Beyond this summer, the process turns hazy and Cleveland's fate falls once more into a purgatory of waiting and ...waiting.

***

He's maintained his innocence all along, even when the temptation of admitting guilt to a parole board almost became too much. He may have once again become a free man if he had uttered those words: I did it. It was me. Yes, I killed them. But he is not a man prone to falsehoods.

Despite the glare of reality, Cleveland, now 43, is still holed up in the Richland Correctional Institute. He's made a life for himself there, mostly out of necessity. That's also due to his alpha-type sunny personality, which people close to him say shines through in prison. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction declined multiple requests by Scene to interview Cleveland in person or over the phone.

Plain Dealer reporter Michael Sangiacomo has written extensively about Cleveland on a personal level. Their relationship goes back to 2002, when Cleveland, a talented artist, began sending illustrations to Sangiacomo, who also writes comic books.

Sangiacomo's reporting, along with the work of anyone else shining a light on wrongful convictions, is one of the few pieces of the puzzle that keeps the future alive and hopeful. Avery's testimony is another piece in the case of Alfred Cleveland. But, at best, those pieces still add up to nothing more than a puzzle, an obscurity.

"He's still sitting there waiting for justice. It is outrageous," Ciolino says. He knows that someday Cleveland will be a free man again. His hair will be grayer. His face will drop more heavily toward a planet that's never entirely cut him a fair deal. His past will not resemble the past of most men, though nor will his future.

Until then, he and many others wait. And fight.

But what's the incentive for the state to draw cases out like this?

"It's the age-old problem: Never admit you're wrong under any circumstances," Ciolino says. "It's an institutional memory issue. Everybody that comes after [particular prosecutors, judges, etc.] feels an obligation to protect the institution, to protect the office."

Political pressure is a bitch of a thing to surmount. But it's a hackneyed fall-back. Most involved with the case think that the buck will continue to be passed until some federal judge with a differing point of view sticks his or her nose in the matter.

"That's the only way he comes outta there," Ciolino says. What remains to be seen is just when, precisely, that's going to happen.

The word "if" hangs in the air with its heavy uncertainty.

***

Cleveland's case isn't unique in Ohio or elsewhere in the U.S.

The Ohio Innocence Project, based at the University of Cincinnati and founded in 2003, analyzes past criminal cases in which the defendants have adamantly maintained their innocence over the years. It's a sure bet that that's a long, long list, but the OIP's staff pursues only legitimate causes and leads. In fact, of the nearly 6,000 inmates who had reached out to the OIP by mid-2012, only 24 had been pursued. Cleveland's was one of them.

The OIP isn't the only game in town. As part of the national Innocence Project, it's got clout. But other law offices and investigative firms around the country perform similar duties. In the case of the OIP, attorneys arrange for the innocence-claiming inmate to fill out a lengthy questionnaire and meet them for some facetime.  

Causes for wrongful conviction stem from several core areas: eyewitness misidentification, unvalidated or improper forensic science, false confessions or admissions, government misconduct, the role of informants, bad lawyering and plenty more. At least several of those directly intersect with Cleveland's story. But there's certainly nothing simple about that story, nor is there a straightforward answer for any of the more than 5,000 wrongfully convicted persons each year, per Thomson Reuters' Criminal Law Bulletin in 2012.

Administratively, Ohio has taken strides in recent years to prevent statistics like those from rising. Senate Bill 77, enacted in May 2010, was a comprehensive boost to DNA testing as an element of exoneration, strict police recording techniques and more. Any adults arrested on or after July 1, 2011, for a felony offense must submit to a collection of DNA, which is then recorded and maintained. And any adult convicted of a felony offense will have the opportunity to request DNA testing.

Such measures were, of course, not retroactively enforced. Nor is it clear that those specific provisions would have galvanized Cleveland's path toward freedom. To be honest: Outside of smatterings of media reports and the occasional sensationalized story, there is little that actually prods legal action in the cases of wrongfully convicted inmates.

Out of the spotlight, innocent men and women are lumped in with the guilty and subject to the same tactics of delay that plague the rest of the system. For illustration, Cleveland's innocence has essentially been proven for years now. But his fate can be dragged out toward a distant terminus; the system inherently allows such actions.

Steps forward like SB 77 are woefully rare in contemporary criminal justice. But, obviously, the significant impact of such measures doesn't go unnoticed by those who are watching - and those who stand to rightfully benefit. DNA results proved just earlier this year that former Akron police captain Douglas Prade was actually innocent of his ex-wife's murder. He spent almost 15 years in federal prison as an innocent man. All those years were based on typically faulty "bite mark testimony." Dental impressions, widely cut down to size as bunk science in a courtroom, had altered Prade's life irrevocably.

For Prade, Cleveland and countless others, it shouldn't have to go down like that.

DNA really isn't going to help Al Cleveland get out of jail. But recently reformed William Avery Jr.'s recantation might. That is, of course, if he's willing to face perjury prosecution in court. Whenever (if...) a new trial is called, Avery will have to weigh the potential punishment against another man's freedom.

"Dude's innocent... But I don't feel I have to go to jail," Avery said in his younger days.

It's unclear if the court system is willing to navigate such an imbalance. In the name of justice, immunity from perjury charges is often a worthwhile endeavor. For Al Cleveland, though, this story is still far from crossing that bridge.

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