Call It Even

The wrong guys went down for an old lady's murder. At least the prosecutors are unscathed

Page 4 of 6

In March 1998, while setting up his deal to testify against Siller and Zimmer, Smith was double-dipping at the jailhouse: He wore a wire for the Sheriff's office and "entered into a sexual liaison" with a male nurse at the jail, according to court documents. He eventually testified at the nurse's trial.

One month after his release from prison on June 12, 2000, Smith was already back to using crack when he grabbed a purse from a lady at Kmart, racking up a fresh aggravated robbery charge. He then struck another deal: He told prosecutors another man had confessed to a murder in prison. Smith's testimony in that case whittled his sentence to one year.

In 2001, he was involved in an accident in the Warehouse District. After attempting to flee the scene, Smith struggled with an officer through the car window and was shot three times. He survived, but was rendered a quadriplegic.

Siller and Zimmer were tried together and convicted in 1998. Siller was given 20 years, Zimmer 40.

Alice Zolkowski died on April 26, 1999. Her death sent Siller and Zimmer back to trial, this time for murder.

***

Jason Smith explained the blood on his pants in three different ways.

At the time of his arrest in 1997, he volunteered that he had cut himself at work on the night Zolkowski was beaten. By the time of Siller and Zimmer's first trial, Smith claimed he had accidentally cut himself on broken glass after slamming a door at his girlfriend's house.

And when Siller and Zimmer faced murder charges a year later, Smith said he got hurt kicking in the door at his girlfriend's house because she had locked him out.

Besides the revolving testimony of Smith, the prosecution's case hinged mainly on the expertise of Joseph Serowik, a forensic specialist for Cleveland Police. In the first trial, Serowik testified that there was one spot of blood on Smith's pants, and that blood belonged to Smith.

Under cross examination in the second trial, however, Serowik buckled when asked about a discolored spot on the back of Smith's pants. Serowik could not say whether or not it had been tested. The judge ordered Serowik to retest the spot; Serowik returned six days later to testify that 1) the spot had been tested before the first trial and came up positive for blood, and 2) the new test showed that the blood belonged to the victim, Alice Zolkowski. Serowik also said every dark spot on the pants was retested, and that the circled spot was the only one that was blood.

This revelation sent the courtroom into a tizzy: The guy who said he was nowhere near the old lady suddenly had her blood on him. Prosecutors considered pulling Smith's deal on the spot, but instead went along with the case, giving Smith an opportunity to explain away the new evidence and for them to explain their case anew.

This time, Smith said he may have been close enough to Zolkowski that the blood flew and landed on him. Or maybe he brushed up against Zimmer.

Prosecutors, who had previously said that whoever beat Zolkowski would have her blood on his pants, now said that if Jason Smith was the one who beat her, "there would be more blood and it would be on the front of his pants." There would be a spatter pattern.

The jury bought Smith's revised story. Siller was convicted for murder and sentenced to 30 years without parole. Zimmer, whose trial was to begin after Siller's, faced the death penalty and had just watched a jury convict Siller. He took a plea bargain for involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to ten years to run concurrently with his 40-year sentence from the first trial.

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