This article was published in partnership with News 5 and The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletters, and follow them on Instagram, TikTok, Reddit and Facebook.
Maddie McGarvey for The Marshall Project
Herring at the Richland Correctional Institution in Mansfield. “If this DNA comes back…and proves me innocent, what will everybody have to say then?” he asked. “Can you give me the 40 years back?”
DNA taken from items preserved from one of Northern Ohio’s most brutal kidnapping and sexual assault cases matched that of the man convicted of the crime, officials said Wednesday.
Samuel Herring was sent to prison nearly 40 years ago after a jury convicted of him of kidnapping, raping and permanently blinding Phyllis Cottle during a daytime attack in March 1984. Herring has always maintained his innocence.
Decades later and out of appeals, Herring asked the Ohio Innocence Project to look into his case. Officials there spent more than three years examining evidence. They said they found similar deficiencies that have contributed to exonerations of dozens of people in Ohio over the years: disparate treatment of a Black man, a conviction won with misleading forensic evidence, historically erroneous cross-racial eyewitness identification and a rush-to-arrest police investigation.
The Marshall Project - Cleveland and News 5 reported Nov. 9 that Summit County prosecutors were working with the Ohio Innocence Project to test evidence for the first time, including Cottle’s clothing.
Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh said the DNA report, received Tuesday, found Herring’s DNA on Cottle’s pants and pantyhose.
She said the testing confirmed the low likelihood that someone other than Herring committed the assault.
“The results were very strong and conclusively determined that Samuel Herring is most definitely in prison where he belongs,” Walsh said. “It’s the strongest DNA test result we could get.”
In interviews conducted before the DNA testing was completed, Herring, 67, said that he was confident the DNA testing would prove his innocence.
Forty years after the crime, Walsh said Wednesday, Herring needlessly put Cottle’s family through the ordeal again.
Through Walsh’s office, the Cottle family released a statement and said they are pleased the testing is over. The family urged the Ohio Innocence Project and both news outlets to better vet future cases with due diligence because they do not want crime victims to be fearful of coming forward.
“We had no doubt that the evidence would show that the attacker was, in fact, guilty,” the family statement said. “We hope that this closes this chapter of any false claim of innocence from the attacker and there will be no further news coverage of such claims.”
Mark Godsey, director of the Ohio Innocence Project, said prior to DNA testing that Herring’s conviction was a textbook case of “junk science,” with such evidence as fibers and hair coupled with poor eyewitness testimony. He called the testing “an opportunity to make sure justice is served.”
On Wednesday, Godsey would not discuss the results and instead thanked Walsh’s office in a statement for quickly reviewing the case.
Ohio Innocence Project officials only accept a fraction of the cases they are asked to review. Their work in past cases since the group’s inception in 2003 has led to the exonerations of 42 people.
On March 20, 1984, Cottle, 44, was leaving work in Akron when she was forced into her car and taken to an abandoned home owned by Herring’s family. After repeated sexual assaults, she was forced back in her car and stabbed in the eyes, forever blinding her, in order to ensure she could not identify her attacker.
Afterward, her car was set on fire and she was left inside to die. Cottle escaped the car and contacted the police.
Cottle died in 2013 at age 73. But her story endured for years as she devoted her life to advocating for crime victims and those living with blindness.
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