Cleveland Man Declared "Wrongfully Imprisoned" for 2003 Murder, Can Now Seek Compensation From State

Ru-El Sailor was declared innocent years ago but with today's decision: "My name is finally cleared'

click to enlarge Protesters stand outside of the Justice Center before RuEl Sailor's exoneration for murder in March 2018. - ERIC SANDY / SCENE
Protesters stand outside of the Justice Center before RuEl Sailor's exoneration for murder in March 2018.

On a white T-shirt sold by Comma Club Clothing's founder Ru-El Sailor, a 42-year-old Cleveland man wrongfully accused and convicted of murder in 2003, is the phrase: “My Story Ain’t Over.”

Today, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Sherrie Miday added another plot point in Sailor’s 15-year fight, nearly five years after his conviction was overturned.

The judge declared Sailor a “wrongfully imprisoned person,” a decision which permits Sailor to seek compensation from the State of Ohio.

For Sailor, who was surrounded today by his wife, mother, grandchildren and attorneys, Miday’s decision signifies something concrete and symbolic.

“I’m finally out,” Sailor told Scene. “My name is finally cleared.”

A year before Sailor was sentenced in 2003 to 28 years-to-life for the murder of Omar Clark, he was walking out of an East Side bar with friends. Ru-El says that around 12:30 in the morning Clark pulled out a gun in front of Sailor’s friend Cordell Hubbard. Defending his sister, Sailor recounts, Hubbard shot in self-defense. But, Sailor was charged along with Hubbard.

With no physical or DNA evidence, the court gave Sailor a quarter-century sentence, even when multiple witnesses confirmed that Sailor wasn’t present for Clark’s death.

“It was like I was literally framed,” Sailor said. “Like, witnesses were forced to identify me. [Even when] they never saw me a day in their life.”

In 2017, with assistance from the Ohio Innocence Project, Sailor sought to have the office of Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley review his case through the Conviction Integrity Unit.

The investigation found that Sailor was innocent.

The payoff was exuberance and freedom for Sailor, yet problematic, in legal terms, for his attorneys.

Though his 2003 convictions for murder, kidnapping and assault were overturned, Sailor was
click to enlarge Sailor at the Free Stamp after his exoneration. - Photo / Ruel Sailor
Photo / Ruel Sailor
Sailor at the Free Stamp after his exoneration.
 forced, lawyers involved in the case said, to accept a guilty plea for perjury and obstruction of justice — offenses that carried a 10-year prison sentence. He copped to the charges for time served and was released.

Sarah Gelsomino, an attorney with Friedman, Gilbert + Gerhardstein who’s been involved in Sailor’s case since 2018, believes that O’Malley’s office felt pressured to assign a punishment.

“Really, what it comes down to, is it's to prevent them from getting money,” she said. “What is the purpose of having Ru-El have a ten-year sentence? He already did the time. It's time served. It's because the prosecutor's office refused to let him get out scot-free.”

Since his exoneration, Sailor has adopted both the attitude of a happily free man and one of a head-down activist. In 2018, he started Comma Club Clothing, with its life-affirming slogans and autobiographical declarations, as a coda for his prison epoch. In March of the following year, he married his wife at the same courthouse where he was convicted 16 years before.

Sailor’s attorney, Kimberly Kendall Corral, was the officiant. “The power of their love bent the bars between them,” Corral said at the 10-minute ceremony. “The persistence of their love changed and opened closed minds.”

Since 2018, Gelsomino said, Sailor’s exoneration has acted as a strong signifier for the wrongfully convicted serving time in Ohio and Cuyahoga for cimes they haven't committed.

Nearly 60 percent—225 persons—of the Innocence Project’s exonerees have been Black, and nearly 70 percent of such cases involved eyewitness misidentification of some type.

“And most of them are here in Cuyahoga County,” Gelsomino said.

Sailor himself sees his story only deepening from here on out. Though given the gifts of normal citizenry, he still maintains an ear to the ground, from afar, at the Justice Center. His phone rings constantly with calls from inmates across Ohio that have likewise been dealt wrongful convictions. “I talk to at least five guys a day,” Sailor said.

For those outside the legal world, Sailor thinks Comma Club Clothing acts as a springboard—for awareness of the Innocence Project, for men like him that were innocent.

It's a message that cries: My life is not a period, full-stop.

“Just like the actual comma, a short pause and a continuation,” Sailor said. “Look at me. My life, they thought [it] was over. My story was over. And now it's not.”

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Mark Oprea

Mark Oprea is a staff writer at Scene. For the past seven years, he's covered Cleveland as a freelance journalist, and has contributed to TIME, NPR, the Pacific Standard and the Cleveland Magazine. He's the winner of two Press Club awards.
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