By Ed Meyer
Beacon Journal staff writer
Portage County Common Pleas Judge John Enlow has ordered new DNA tests of potentially decisive crime scene evidence in the case of death row inmate Tyrone Noling.
Enlow’s ruling Thursday morning was a significant victory for Noling.
It moved the case forward on a defense assertion by the Ohio Innocence Project that he was not the killer in a 1990 double murder in Atwater Township, but Noling’s lawyers came prepared for a full evidentiary hearing on the evidence.
Four nationally recognized experts, in the fields of DNA testing, false confessions by state witnesses and cold-case criminal investigations, were waiting to testify but now must wait until the test results are revealed.
Enlow ordered the new DNA tests on a cigarette butt found in the driveway at the home of the elderly victims, Bearnhardt and Cora Hartig.
His order calls for the tests to be done by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
Any positive results then will be sent to the FBI lab for comparison to the genetic profiles of known criminals in the agency’s computerized database — the Combined DNA Index System known as CODIS.
Enlow told attorneys from both sides that until the test results are known, proceeding with a full evidentiary hearing would be like “shooting in the dark.”
Such DNA test results often take months to complete.
Portage County Prosecutor Victor V. Vigluicci had opposed advanced DNA testing of the cigarette butt in his Ohio Supreme Court arguments last January.
He said then that even if new tests were granted, results would be meaningless. Initial DNA testing of the cigarette butt was brought out at Noling’s 1996 jury trial, Vigluicci argued, and it excluded him as the contributor.
But that was not his position at Thursday’s hearing.
Vigluicci said he already had made a previous “offer” to the defense to have the cigarette butt tested by BCI.
He said BCI scientists are “eminently qualified” to extract DNA samples in order to determine whether there is enough genetic material present, a process called “quantification,” to present to the FBI for analysis.
Noling’s lead trial attorney, Carrie Wood of the Ohio Innocence Project, argued for the tests to be done by Orchid Cellmark, one of the oldest and most experienced DNA labs in the nation. She told Enlow the Innocence Project would pay for the tests to be done there.
Cellmark was the lab used in the process that led to Clarence Elkins winning his freedom after he was wrongly convicted in a 1998 Summit County murder case.
Wood told Enlow that Cellmark has the most sophisticated equipment in the nation, and that if the defense has only one chance to test the cigarette butt, “we should do it thoroughly and we should do it correctly.”
Afterward, outside of court, Wood said there are concerns if BCI finds only a miniscule DNA sample in the cigarette butt.
“What we want is the best chance to get a result and find the perpetrator’s DNA,” Wood said. “Unfortunately, the court’s order today doesn’t do that. While it moves the case forward, it doesn’t get the most advanced information.”
Noling, 41, was present at the hearing in prison clothes and shackles but did not make any comments in open court.
Retired veteran detective James Trainum, who was involved in more than 100 homicide investigations for the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., spent 13 of his 27 years there in its Major Case/Cold Case Unit.
He was waiting to testify about the evidentiary importance of the cigarette butt, but Enlow’s ruling pre-empted his testimony.
Trainum declined to comment on his findings, but did submit a 12-page affidavit for the court record.
It challenges a prosecution claim that the cigarette butt simply could have been flicked into the victims’ driveway by someone unrelated to the crime.
However, in his report, Trainum said the victims’ home is on a rural road, with the closest neighbor’s driveway more than 200 feet east of the Hartig home.
“The distance from the road to the Hartigs’ garage,” Trainum went on to report, “is approximately 116 feet, meaning that the cigarette butt was found over 100 feet from the roadway.”
Reports by all four of the defense’s expert witnesses are available at www.tyronenoling.com.
The Innocence Project’s headline for the website is: “Innocent on Death Row: A Case of Murder and Injustice in Portage County, Ohio.”
Enlow also ordered a BCI evaluation of several shell casing and ring boxes found at the crime scene that investigators believe were touched by the perpetrator.
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.