Phil Trexler

After nearly 20 years, Dewey Amos Jones can finally take a bath.

No longer will the Akron man be forced to shower as a convicted murderer. On Thursday, he heard the words he’s been praying for since his trial in 1995: Case dismissed.

“I knew the day would come, but I just never thought it would take this long,” Jones said moments after state attorneys dismissed their indictment, citing a lack of evidence.

“I’m conflicted, mixed up,” he said. “I really don’t know what to think at this point. It hasn’t settled in yet, I guess.”

After the hearing, Jones found himself surrounded in a Summit County courtroom by his children, supporters and attorneys, as his long journey to prove his innocence took a major swing toward an end.

Last year, new DNA evidence won him a new trial. In December, he was freed from custody to await trial in February. However, he has been confined to his daughter’s North Hill home under house arrest and has worn an electronic ankle bracelet to monitor his whereabouts.

So after Judge Mary Margaret Rowlands granted the state’s request to dismiss the case, Jones — for the first time in a long time — was truly free.

“I’ve had 20 years of showers. It’s time for a bath,” Jones, 51, half-joked when asked what he planned to do with his newfound freedom. “Getting this monitor cut off is going to be the start ’cause I really haven’t been free yet.”

That first bath had to wait a little longer.

Supporters drove Jones to the Olive Garden near Chapel Hill, where the restaurant manager provided him a complimentary meal.

But even now, despite contradictory DNA evidence and a dearth of witnesses, the state isn’t ready to fully let go of Jones as a suspect.

Assistant Ohio Attorney General Micah Ault noted in court that while the state lacks living key witnesses for an immediate retrial, prosecutors want to keep the door open for that possibility.

Jones’ attorneys — Adam VanHo of Akron and David Owens of the University of Chicago Exoneration Project — are objecting and asking the judge to dismiss the case permanently and to bar the state on double-jeopardy grounds from attempting a second trial.

Physical evidence

Defense attorneys have said there was never any physical evidence linking Jones to the slaying of 71-year-old Neal Rankin in 1993. The state’s star witness — a jailhouse snitch and career felon who claimed Jones confessed to him — died in a shootout with police.

Rowlands delayed her decision on whether Jones can be retried until each side files written arguments by her Feb. 10 deadline.

After Thursday’s hearing, two rows of Jones’ supporters wiped tears and loudly applauded the ending.

“This is the kind of case that you dream about when you’re a law student: Freeing an innocent man,” VanHo said. “This is it. And we actually got to do it.”

Jones has always maintained his innocence, but few believed him until the Ohio Innocence Project took up his case and persuaded a judge to allow DNA testing on crime-scene evidence that police had collected but not examined with modern techniques.

Retiree slain in 1993

Rankin, a Goodyear retiree, was found beaten and shot to death inside his Independence Avenue home near Chapel Hill on Valentine’s Day 1993.

Jones was among several suspects Akron police arrested in connection with the murder. Jurors convicted him of aggravated murder and other charges in March 1995, and he was sentenced to life in prison.

No one from Rankin’s family attended the hearing. Prosecutors left the courtroom quickly and did not comment to reporters.

The new DNA tests of crime-scene evidence found unknown samples of male blood on a piece of nylon rope used to tie Rankin’s wrists, a knife used to cut the rope and a section of fabric from the victim’s shirtsleeves.

Faded memories

VanHo said the state of the evidence today would lead to a swift acquittal. State attorneys won’t disagree. They cited faded memories of some witnesses and the 2000 death of felon-turned-star witness William Caton as reasons to dismiss the case.

However, “The state will continue to pursue any potential investigatory leads into this murder which could lead to the re-indictment of [Jones] at a later date,” Ault wrote in his motion to dismiss the case.

Rowlands’ decision on whether Jones can be retried is pivotal to any effort he can undertake to sue the state for wrongful incarceration.

Other released inmates — some of whom have served fewer years — have won judgments in excess of $1 million after a judge found them innocent of the crime, a legal standard higher than not guilty.

Jones and his lawyers declined to talk about any potential monetary award.

For now, Jones said he plans to spend time with his children and grandchildren, attend church and be baptized. He promised himself he would shave his long, gray beard only after he was freed and able to be properly baptized.

Still, he said, there are questions to be answered about lost years and failed justice.

“I’d sure like to know who I did 20 years for,” Jones said.

“I mean, it’s good to be finally cleared. But I think there’s a ways to go yet. We’ll see what happens.”

Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or ptrexler@thebeaconjournal.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PhilTrexler.