Phil Trexler

An emotional Douglas Prade sat in the warden’s office Tuesday just waiting. And waiting.

After 14-plus years in prison, the former Akron police captain convicted of killing his wife was poised to walk out a free man just hours after new DNA tests prompted a Summit County judge to order his release.

At times, Prade, the former hardened street cop, just sat there and let loose tears as the minutes passed and freedom called.

“He’s had to keep his emotions sort of suppressed for all these years just to stay sane,” said his attorney, Mark Godsey. “So, some of that bottled-up emotion came out today and it was tears of joy.”

Clarence Elkins can relate. The former Magnolia man served more than seven years in prison over the slaying of his mother-in-law before DNA evidence exonerated him. Elkins remembers his last few hours at the Mansfield Correctional Institution and the emotions that followed him out the prison gates.

“I don’t think it will dawn on [Prade] right away that he has freedom. It will take a little time,” Elkins said Tuesday. “He’ll be in disbelief for a while, I know I was. It didn’t feel real.”

Indeed, Prade told reporters outside the prison: “It has been 15 years — 15 years in the making. I don’t know. I’m just a jumble of emotions right now.”

After his conviction in 1998, Prade lived by prison rules. He was told when to eat, what to eat, when to sleep, when to wake. He has always maintained his innocence in the killing of his former wife, Dr. Margo Prade.

Even before his 1998 trial, Prade sought DNA evidence on the lab coat where Dr. Prade was bitten before she was shot and killed in 1997 outside her office. He spent $10,000 of his own money on a second DNA test. Science 14 years ago had yet not caught up to the sensitivity of DNA.

Now, it has.

DNA on Dr. Prade’s lab coat, in the spot where she was bitten, revealed a man’s DNA. And it wasn’t Douglas Prade’s. On Tuesday, Common Pleas Judge Judy Hunter ruled the evidence was proof of Prade’s innocence and ordered his release.

“The court concludes as a matter of law that the defendant is actually innocent of aggravated murder,” Hunter wrote in her decision.

Prosecutors are appealing, but they will have to do so while Prade is a free man. Dennis Johnson, a former Akron police officer, met Prade outside the prison and was to drive the former captain home to Akron. Prade was expected to stay at the home of his sister, Yvonne Prade.

So much has changed outside prison since 1998. And Prade, 66, will have to adjust.

Before his release, Prade likely went through the routine most inmates follow on their last day. His property is inventoried and bagged. His belongings might include a letter he exchanged with Elkins last year.

Freed inmates are given street clothes, such as a T-shirt or sweatshirt and sweat pants. Their prison money accounts, if they have any funds, are released to them. Inmates also receive a photo ID and a two-week supply of medications, if necessary.

They are then shown the door.

“There’s just a lot of emotions when you walk out,” Elkins said. “I was shot down a few times trying to get out of prison. Doug was as well. So, there’s just so many emotions inside you.

“There’s a lot that goes through your mind. Myself, I was calm, but I was also in disbelief when I walked out the doors at Mansfield. I didn’t know if it was real. I’m sure Doug will feel the same way.”

For some reason unknown to him, Elkins walked out of prison still wearing his jail duds — a light blue shirt and navy blue pants.

After speaking with reporters outside the gate on that dreary, snowy December day in 2005, Elkins and his family and lawyers drove to a nearby restaurant.

Elkins excused himself and went to the rest room, where he quickly changed clothes. His prison blues, like his prison time, went right into the trash. The memories have stayed with him.

“The best advice I can give Doug is to go slow and take his time with everything,” Elkins said. “The other thing is he should talk to somebody he’s comfortable with. That’s what I didn’t do, that I felt I should have and I regretted it. I should have talked to a therapist or psychologist or whatever in the beginning.

“That’s the thing. As men, we fail to realize that we can’t do everything on our own. I struggled a lot after I was out. Then I finally started talking to some people and I just got better with that.”

Staff writer Rick Armon contributed to this report. Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or ptrexler@thebeaconjournal.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PhilTrexler