On Tuesday, the Ohio Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case of Tyrone Noling, a resident of death row, found guilty in 1996 of murdering an elderly Atwater Township couple. Noling and his attorney want the justices to grant DNA testing of the crime scene, in particular, a cigarette butt found on the driveway. The court will weigh rather narrow questions of interpretation and jurisdiction. What should concern Ohioans more broadly is the mounting information that casts doubt on the Noling conviction.
Actually, doubt has been warranted from the beginning. Noling and three other young men did conducted thefts from cars and two home robberies in April 1990. The killing of Cora and Bearnhardt Hartig, shot at their kitchen table? The Portage County sheriff investigated, and concluded about Noling and friends: “It just didn’t fit.”
No physical evidence has been found linking Noling to the crime scene. Noling had picked up a .25 caliber handgun, the kind of weapon used in the killing. But markings on the bullets excluded his gun. Little at the scene resembled the robberies involving Noling in Alliance.
What changed after the sheriff’s assessment? The prosecutor’s office put an investigator on the trail. He eventually gained confessions from the three friends, pointing the finger at Noling. Their testimony proved persuasive enough at trial, even though one recanted on the witness stand. The others recanted later, sharing their descriptions of the coercion, threats and other methods of manipulation employed by the investigator.
Worth adding is that Noling passed a polygraph test. More, a rough chemical test used at the time excluded him from the cigarette butt.
Noling wants the court to grant sophisticated DNA testing to see whether the cigarette butt yields a connection to an alternative suspect. Daniel Wilson was a killer, convicted in 1991, executed three years ago. He knew the Atwater area. The chemical test did not exclude him. In addition, a police report in 1990 noted his foster brother stated that Wilson committed the Hartig murders. Recently, the foster brother confirmed the statement.
Unfortunately, Noling’s trial counsel did not share with the jury the possibility of Wilson as an alternative suspect. Prosecutors withheld the police report, something Noling’s attorneys did not learn until a few years ago.
Imagine jurors hearing about Wilson, along with another possible suspect, an insurance agent who may have defaulted on a loan provided by the Hartigs. Noling’s attorneys point out that one of the couple’s insurance agents owned a .25 caliber handgun. (He refused to take a polygraph.) A strong argument can be made that jurors would have looked much differently at the case.
Ideally, in view of the growing and substantial doubt, Tyrone Noling would receive a new trial. A jury would weigh the full array of evidence. For now, he deserves the requested DNA testing. Hard to believe the prosecution fails to see the value in answering the question about Daniel Wilson. In death penalty cases, the state must take great care in ensuring the correct outcome. It doesn’t want to be in the position of committing its own murder, of executing the wrong man.