In May, the Ohio Supreme Court opened the door to new DNA testing in the case of Tyrone Noling. A 5-2 majority reversed a lower court decision and sent the question to Judge John Enlow of the Portage County Common Pleas Court. Earlier this month, attorneys for Noling filed a motion asking the court to permit testing of additional evidence. The request makes sense — if the objective is justice, or at least addressing the mounting doubt about the Noling conviction.
A jury found Noling guilty of the 1990 killings of Cora and Bearnhardt Hartig in their house in Atwater Township. He has resided on death row the past 17 years. The indictment of Noling didn’t come until five years after the episode, described by prosecutors as a robbery that turned into murder. Key to the conviction was the testimony of three friends of Noling at the scene.
They long ago recanted, citing coercion by the prosecution. On their own, these reversals might be played down. Striking is how they fit into a pattern, the case against Noling having eroded so substantially. Noling and his friends were involved in earlier robberies in Alliance. At the Hartig house, there was no physical evidence linking them to the crime. Nothing was taken from the house. If many in prison proclaim their innocence, know further that Noling’s gun didn’t match the murder weapon. He passed a polygraph test.
Four years ago, attorneys for Noling learned through a public records request about an alternative suspect. The information wasn’t shared at the trial. Yet the person in question lived near the Hartigs and eventually murdered a young woman. He received a death sentence and was executed.
Noling wants to apply the more sophisticated DNA testing of today to a cigarette butt found on the driveway. (He already has been excluded.) A search for the truth requires such a step. So does state law, the legislature in 2010 expanding the concept of a “definitive” DNA test.
As the Supreme Court stressed, a test must be performed if it hasn’t been conducted yet and the outcome could be “determinative,” or likely change the result of a trial. Find the presence of an alternative suspect, including a second possibility, an insurance agent for the Hartigs who refused to take a polygraph, and that surely would be the result. It would be especially so in view of the collapsing case of the prosecution on other fronts.
Logic follows: If the cigarette butt is tested, then a jewelry box and shell casings should be tested, too. The prosecution has argued that both were touched by the killer. Recent advances in DNA testing make possible gaining decisive evidence from each item. An opportunity exists to clear up the many uncertainties about whether Tyrone Noling murdered the Hartigs. More, the state must take necessary care to ensure that Ohio avoids the grievous mistake of executing an innocent man.