Published Friday, May 17, 2002, in the Akron Beacon Journal.

Man's guilt in question
Beacon Journal staff writer

As a 6-year-old, she witnessed her grandmother's horrific murder. In her bedroom, the same intruder raped and strangled her, leaving the little girl to die.

At trial, the girl pointed a finger at her uncle, Clarence Elkins, as the man who brutally raped her and bludgeoned her grandmother to death.

Now, four years after the murder, the child says she was wrong.

To support the girl's story, a private investigator hired by Elkins' family claims to have located Judith Johnson's real killer.

The private eye, who specializes in wrongful conviction cases, says the suspect was ignored by Barberton police.

In court papers, the suspect is said to be a convicted sex offender who bears a ``striking resemblance'' to Elkins, and who was oddly infatuated with Johnson, 58, despite a large age difference and her failing health.

In court papers filed this week, Elkins asks Summit County Common Pleas Judge John Adams to either vacate his conviction or grant him a new trial. The judge has yet to rule on the request.

Adams sentenced Elkins to the maximum sentence of 55 years to life following his trial in June 1999.

``This is a man who, from the moment of his arrest through this very day, has steadfastly maintained his innocence,'' said Elkins' attorney, Elizabeth Kelley of Cleveland.

The girl's testimony was compelling and key to putting her uncle in prison. It also drove a wedge between Johnson's two daughters -- one who was married to Elkins and one who was the mother of the child.

Prosecutors alleged that Clarence Elkins, then 35, was angry with Johnson for breaking up his marriage to Melinda, Johnson's daughter.

They say he went to her Barberton home on the morning of June 7, 1998, and bludgeoned and raped Johnson. He then beat, strangled and raped the girl, who woke up shortly after the intruder entered.

The girl told police that the intruder was her uncle and, hours after the attack, Elkins was arrested. Another witness told police that Johnson was fearful of Elkins and that he had threatened to kill her.

There was no physical evidence linking Elkins to the murder. Hair samples found near Johnson and her granddaughter did not match Elkins or the victims.

Elkins testified, as did others, that he was 40 miles away, sleeping at his Magnolia home, around the time of the attack. Elkins has acknowledged that his wife is the only person who can vouch for his whereabouts from 2:30 a.m. to 7 a.m. on the night Johnson died.

``I'm an innocent man. I feel that the justice system has failed,'' Elkins said to Adams prior to being sentenced.

Barberton detectives were unavailable for comment.

In court papers, the girl, now 10, has offered a more detailed description of the intruder that includes the man's eye color, clothing and hair.

The motion indicates that the suspect seen by the girl strongly resembles Elkins. A Barberton Citizens Hospital nurse also has filed an affidavit claiming that the suspect is the same unidentified man that she and others saw at the girl's hospital bed shortly after the murder.

Furthermore, the motion claims the suspect had a prior sex offense as a juvenile that involved penetration with an object. Johnson was raped as well as beaten with a blunt object.

Also, several people say the man, who still lives in Summit County, had scratch marks on his body the day after Johnson's death.

In a January deposition, the girl was shown the man's photo and identified him as her grandmother's killer.

Kelley and Columbus private investigator Martin Yant insist that the girl's story has not been molded by family members. They say the girl only recently started talking about the case, after her mother and Melinda Elkins had resolved their differences.

Until recently, the girl's mother had been convinced of Elkins' guilt, Yant said. Only in the past year have the two sisters reconciled.

``The girl was afraid to say anything about her doubts because her mom and dad were convinced that Clarence did it,'' Yant said. ``When she saw the ice break, she felt comfortable to talk about it.''

Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or