Rick Armon, Ed Meyer and Phil Trexler
LONDON, OHIO: Douglas Prade had some simple plans once he was released from state prison Tuesday.
See family. Hug grandkids. Eat good food. Get a shower.
“I’m just a jumble of emotions right now,” Prade, 66, a former Akron police captain, said minutes after walking out of Madison Correctional Institution.
He had served nearly 15 years of a life sentence after being convicted of the 1997 shooting death of his ex-wife, Dr. Margo S. Prade. But Summit County Common Pleas Judge Judy Hunter ruled Tuesday morning that DNA test results exclude him as a suspect and he is “actually innocent of aggravated murder.”
Hunter ordered that Prade be set free immediately.
“This is what should have happened in 1998,” Prade said, alluding to his trial. “I’m innocent. I should have been found innocent back then. But of course, DNA wasn’t in the place it is now.”
Prade, wearing a black hoodie, gray sweatpants and bright white sneakers, spoke with reporters immediately after being released. Because the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction wouldn’t allow reporters on the prison property, his news conference was held at first in a bowling alley parking lot down the street.
After a man kicked Prade and reporters off that property, the news conference was completed across the street in the parking lot of Union Township Hall.
Prade showed no anger or bitterness in his comments, just gratitude for being freed. He thanked the Ohio Innocence Project, based at the University of Cincinnati, which has been working on his case for a decade, and his attorneys at the Jones Day law firm of Cleveland.
He said he wants to work with the Innocence Project in the future.
“I’ve got 30 years of police experience,” he said. “I hope they can use me in some capacity to help them with cases similar to mine. I already told them they can expect me to show up in the offices.
“There are thousands of innocent men and women in prison, and a lot of them don’t have the advantage of having DNA [to aid their cases],” he added.
Prade said he kept his spirits up while in prison by reading — he estimated that he read about 500 books — and exercising. He also kept a journal of his thoughts and observations.
That journal includes the names of about 20 University of Cincinnati law students who worked on his case through the Ohio Innocence Project. He showed off those names to the media after his release.
Yvonne Prade, 60, of Akron stood by her brother during the news conference, giving him an embrace and kiss.
“I’m so happy to have my brother back,” she said. “I missed him all these years, and I love him so much. I knew he didn’t do that. I knew.”
Yvonne Prade and retired Akron police Sgt. Dennis Johnson Jr. traveled to the prison to drive Prade home to Akron in a white Cadillac Escalade.
Johnson and Prade have been friends since they joined the police academy June 6, 1968.
“It’s a joyous day,” Johnson said while sitting in the SUV. “I’ve known what the courts decided today ever since Day One.”
Prade had spent most of Tuesday in the warden’s office awaiting word about his release. It was a nerve-wracking day for him, he said.
Ohio Innocence Project Director Mark Godsey said Prade broke down crying several times, “which is something I hadn’t seen from him. He has had to keep his emotions sort of suppressed for all these years just to stay sane. So some of that bottled up emotion came out today, and it was tears of joy.”
Godsey told the media that Prade would not answer any questions about the murder case.
Prade said he planned to live with Yvonne Prade — at least for now. He didn’t know if he would stay in Akron for long, and talked about moving to Texas to be with other family.
‘Clear and convincing’
Hunter said no jury today would convict Prade of the slaying. She cited DNA test results from a bite-mark impression found on the lab coat of his former wife.
“The court is not unsympathetic to the family members, friends and community who want to see justice for Dr. Prade,” Hunter wrote in her 26-page ruling. “However, the evidence that [Douglas Prade] presented in this case is clear and convincing.”
The ruling, which came some three months after Hunter conducted four days of court hearings on the new DNA test results, stated near its conclusion that Hunter’s order to free Prade should be carried out “without delay.”
He was released around 4:30 p.m.
David B. Alden, Prade’s lead defense counsel in October hearings that involved the DNA evidence, told the Beacon Journal in a telephone interview Tuesday morning that Hunter’s order was sent directly to Madison Correctional Institution to begin the process of Prade’s release.
Alden called Hunter’s decision “phenomenal.” It was a “careful, thoughtful opinion and went to the record, which was a big record, and did an excellent job.
“Justice has been done,” Alden said.
Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh said in a news release the decision will be appealed.
Tuesday afternoon in her chambers, Hunter denied a request by Summit Assistant Prosecutor Richard Kasay, an appellate attorney, to delay Prade’s release.
The discussions were not open to the public, and Kasay declined to comment immediately after the 10-minute meeting. Alden and two other members of Prade’s defense team participated in the meeting in a conference call, Hunter’s bailiff said.
April Wiesner, Walsh’s chief spokesperson, said the agency intended to file a subsequent motion in Akron’s 9th District Court of Appeals, also seeking to stop Prade’s release.
Hunter’s written decision, however, said that even if an appellate court ultimately overturns her decision, Prade would receive a new trial.
Walsh called Hunter’s ruling “a gross misapplication of the law.”
Prade and his defense team, Walsh said, “had to present new evidence so convincing that no juror would have found him guilty, and he failed to do so. The DNA evidence presented by the Ohio Innocence Project on behalf of Prade is contaminated and unreliable. It does not prove innocence.”
Walsh said DNA experts from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the state’s crime lab, contradicted the conclusions reached by Prade’s attorneys.
Godsey said prosecutors have wasted tens of thousands of dollars fighting Prade’s claims. He said his demands for DNA testing were not met for more than a decade.
“It’s just outrageous,” Godsey said.
Yvonne Prade wants prosecutors not to pursue her brother again.
“It’ll be horrible if they do that to our family,” she said.
Swatch of cloth
At issue is a swatch of cloth cut from Dr. Prade’s lab coat, on which the killer left a bite-mark impression.
Walsh said BCI’s forensic experts interpreted the new DNA results “as insufficient and unreliable and most likely proof of contamination or mistakes.”
Brad Gessner, chief of Walsh’s criminal division who played a major role at the DNA hearings before Hunter in October, told the Beacon Journal in an interview at his office Tuesday that the swatch of cloth could have been contaminated in any number of ways.
“What we know,” Gessner said, “is that a cutting was taken 15 years after the fact. It was a cutting that we know was exposed in court, we know it was touched in court, we know it went back to the jury room and we don’t know if the jurors opened [the evidence envelope] or touched it.”
Fifteen years ago, when the state conducted its DNA tests of the lab coat, Gessner said no saliva was found on the area in question.
Gessner stopped short of saying he was surprised by the depth of Hunter’s ruling vacating Prade’s murder conviction and a new trial order if the judge’s decision should be overturned on appeal.
He did say “the decision to release” Prade surprised the office.
“When we looked at this [following the October hearings], we saw the potential that he could be released or he could get a new trial. Based on all of this, and the judge’s tenor throughout the hearings, the new trial probably was going to be granted.
“We still disagree with it,” Gessner said. “We still think it doesn’t meet the legal burden, but the exoneration was not expected.”
Prade has been in prison since he lost at trial in 1998. He always has maintained his innocence.
It wasn’t until the Ohio Innocence Project accepted his case, however, that new DNA testing was conducted. The DNA tests focused on Dr. Prade’s lab coat, which she was wearing when she was killed inside a van in her office parking lot adjacent to what was then called the Rolling Acres Dodge dealership.
The fatal shooting occurred, according to the original Akron police investigation, at 9:10 a.m. on the morning before Thanksgiving Day.
Security cameras at the Dodge dealership captured a mostly shadowy figure entering the van’s passenger side door at that time. That shadowy figure, based on the height of the van’s roof from the pavement, was considerably shorter than Douglas Prade’s 6-foot-3 stature.
Prade has stressed this investigative detail in maintaining his innocence from the beginning of the case.
Prosecutors at Prade’s trial in 1998 showed that Dr. Prade was bitten through her lab coat. The new DNA tests recovered male DNA from the coat. And that profile excluded Douglas Prade, Hunter’s ruling stressed.
Akron police Chief James Nice, commander of many detectives and police supervisors who actually investigated the slaying, said he believes Prade is guilty and that detectives support Walsh’s efforts to appeal.
“We are disappointed in Judge Hunter’s opinion exonerating Doug Prade,” Nice said. “All of the evidence clearly points to Prade as Dr. Margo Prade’s killer. He was proven guilty in front of a jury using a substantial amount of other evidence.”
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or email@example.com; Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or firstname.lastname@example.org.