Judge Grants New Trial for Cleveland Man Who's Maintained Innocence in 1974 Murder of His Wife After Undisclosed Police Reports Surface

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click to enlarge Judge Grants New Trial for Cleveland Man Who's Maintained Innocence in 1974 Murder of His Wife After Undisclosed Police Reports Surface
The Colonial House Motel where the Andrews stayed in 1974/ Cleveland Memory Project

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Robert McClelland ruled in favor of Isiah Andrews today in his motion for a new trial in connection with the 1974 murder of his wife, Regina Andrews, after undisclosed evidence surfaced that was never provided to the defense.

Andrews, now 82 and serving a life sentence, has maintained his innocence since the 1975 trial. He's represented by the Ohio Innocence Project, which welcomed the news but noted that with Andrews' age and medical vulnerability, granting a new trial without quickly getting him out of prison as COVID-19 runs rampant through corrections facilities does little to immediately put out the fire. Dates for a bond hearing and the new trial were not yet set by the judge.

"Mr. Andrews is relieved the Court recognized that he deserves a new trial, a fair trial," Brian Howe of the Ohio Innocence Project said. "He turned 82 years old in April, and he’s already been in prison forty five years for a crime he didn’t commit. This has been a long time coming.

"But it’s hard to celebrate while his life remains in danger. He’s at serious risk in prison, and county jail may be even worse. He’s waited forty five years for a fair trial. If he gets infected in state custody, he might never get one."

His lawyers in 2018 sought a court order to test samples collected from the body of Regina Andrews — fingernail scrapings and vaginal swabs — with DNA technology not available at the time of the trial. Andrews was found in wrapped in bedsheets, brutally stabbed, with her nightgown pushed up around her waist, indicating a sexual assault. Isiah Andrews had told police he'd been out all day on Sept. 18, 1974, running errands and selling clothes and returned to the hotel room he shared with his wife to find her missing.

An appellate court granted that request, overruling McClelland's decision. In communication with the Cuyahoga County Coroner's Office in the aftermath, the Ohio Innocence Project discovered the office's file on the case included Cleveland police reports and narratives pointing toward a separate suspect named Willie Watts, who had been in the area where Andrews' body was found wrapped in hotel bed linens in Forest Hills Park and who had been in Howard Johnson hotel the night before in a room that was missing its linens the next day.

"At the time of this murder, investigating officers were apparently certain that Watts had committed the crime when they stated on the final page of their supplementary report, '[i]t is our opinion that this crime was committed by Willie H. Watts, who is apparently attempting to sell his mothers [sic] coat and her other valuables to get money to get away from this city.' The police later declined to prosecute Watts accepting his alibis and focusing their attention on the defendant," McClelland wrote.

This was never disclosed to Andrews' lawyers at the time of the trial.

Watts, Andrews' lawyers documented in filings, went on to accumulate a criminal record littered with violence against women.

No physical evidence tied Andrews to the crime and he was convicted on the basis of shaky eyewitness testimony from a maid and short-term tenant of the Colonial House Motel on Euclid Ave. near East 30th, where the Andrews had been staying after getting married three weeks earlier. He told police he had been out all day on Sept. 18, 1974

In his ruling, Judge McCelland notes that while the state makes many good arguments for why Watts would have mattered little to the jury, the fact that the defense lawyers never had a chance to investigate what the police had found or raise the issue at trial is all that matters.

"There is no way of telling whether the information concerning Watt was withheld or simply ignored as irrelevant when he was eliminated as a suspect by the police. Regardless, the information was not in the hands of the defense team to make their own decision of whether it would provide a defense for their client," the judge wrote.

"This is probably the most egregious Brady violation I have seen," Howe told Scene. "The wrong person went to prison in 1974. The person who was originally arrested went on to wreak havoc in this State for another thirty years. It might be impossible to ever make this right, but today is a first step towards trying to get some justice for Mr. Andrews."

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