Killer's family hopes for sentence reversal or new trial

MURDER VICTIM. Melinda Elkins holds a picture of her murdered mother, Judy Johnson. Elkins’ husband is serving life in prison for Johnson’s death but his family maintain his conviction was a mistake.

Repository / Joy Newcomb

By DAVE SERENO 
Repository
staff writer

June 23, 2002

WAYNESBURG — Their wait for a second chance in the justice system has stretched to four years.

Family members and supporters of Clarence Elkins have remained true to their cause since he was convicted of the 1998 murder of his mother-in-law.

While the former press operator at Colfor in Malvern is serving a life sentence, his family pooled its resources — a cost of more than $100,000 — in hopes of overturning what they feel is an unimaginable mistake.

With the help of a private investigator and a new attorney, they say they have new evidence that points to another man who murdered Judy Johnson.

Their second chance in court finally arrives next month.

Summit County Common Pleas Judge John Adams had agreed to hold a hearing on their claims.

“This has been a miscarriage of justice for my brother and Judy Johnson. No one deserves to have this kind of thing happen to them. ... One day is too long. Four years is way too long,” said Jeff Elkins, one of Clarence’s five brothers.
 

Uncle Clarence

The person most responsible for Elkins’ convictions may be the only one who can set him free.

Elkins’ niece, then 6, provided the most damaging testimony against him during his 1999 trial in Akron.

The girl was an unexpected sleepover guest at her grandmother’s Barberton home June 7, 1998.

In the early morning hours, an intruder entered and attacked Johnson. The legally blind 58-year-old was beaten, strangled and raped with a blunt object.

The girl, too, was hit and sexually assaulted but survived.

Though she could recall few details during her 45 minutes on the stand, she told jurors that Elkins was the man responsible. He had made a mean face.

“You’re sure it was Uncle Clarence?” Assistant Summit County Prosecutor Becky Dougherty asked then.

“Yes, the girl replied. “Because of his face.”

The girl now says it wasn’t her uncle.

The man in the home that night had brown eyes. Elkins’ eyes are blue. The girl offers other new details, like the cowboy boots the man wore.

In a videotaped deposition, the child, now 10, says the killer was someone other than Elkins “because he would never do that to me and my grandma, and they loved each other.”

Family friend Beverly Kaisak of Barberton said she talked to the girl in her room the day of the incident. The girl wasn’t certain at the time that Elkins was the attacker, Kaisak said.

“ ‘I think it sounded like him.’ That was her exact words,” Kaisak said.

Summit County prosecutors say the girl’s choice of words now shows she has been coached over the years by those who want to free Elkins.

“How exactly (the girl) came to these details is the real question, and it is submitted that the answer is not favorable to the defendant,” Richard S. Kasay, assistant prosecutor wrote in response to motions filed by Elkins’ attorneys.

The girl’s interview is filled with leading and suggestive questions, Kasay wrote.

“This court should definitely not take this ‘deposition’ as establishing any reason at all to question the evidence at defendant’s trial about (the girl’s) identifications of him.”

Kasay wants Adams to reject Elkins’ request for a new trial.
 

Private eye

The Elkins clan hired private investigator Martin Yant in early 2000. The author of “Presumed Guilty: When Innocent People Are Wrongly Convicted” specializes in overturning criminal convictions.

Yant has poked holes in the prosecution’s theory that Elkins killed his mother-in-law out of frustration because she was meddling in his rocky marriage to her daughter, Melinda.

Elkins’ trial largely was built on circumstantial evidence. Prosecutors used testimony from Johnson’s friend to show she was afraid of him and letters in which she called him names.

Police said they found no signs of forced entry, and no fingerprints or hairs linking Elkins to the scene.

Yant also has zeroed in on a man in Johnson’s life he suspects is the killer.

The man looks like Elkins, which might explain the niece’s identification of her uncle, he said.

The other man suffered a head injury as a child, was known to carry a sawed-off pool stick for protection and had a romantic interest in Johnson. All are factors Elkins’ supporters say cast doubt on his convictions.

Cleveland attorney Elizabeth Kelley has asked Adams to force the suspect to submit to a DNA test to see if he matches unaccounted for hairs found at the murder scene.

Kaisak, who lived with the other suspect for a time, claims the man had deep scratches in his back soon after Johnson was killed. He attributed them to “being with a wild woman” the previous night.

Elkins testified that he was at several Waynesburg area bars the night of the murder. He said he then went to his Magnolia area home in Carroll County.

Witnesses saw him in the early morning hours. The drive to Barberton is about 45 minutes each way.

Barberton police locked onto her husband early and ignored other possibilities, according to Melinda Elkins. They failed to test one of Johnson’s rings, her fingernails or blood stains, she said.

“If Barberton Police Department feels they have properly investigated this case ... then I feel sorry for the citizens of Barberton,” she said.

“It’s just ridiculous how they didn’t test anything.”

Barberton Police Chief Mike Kallai said a Summit County coroner’s investigator was called to the scene.

“If there was something there to be checked or something to done, it was done,” Kallai said.

He defended the investigation, saying the evidence collected was presented to the prosecutor’s office. It then went before a judge and a jury.

“We did the same thing we would in any homicide. We take them very seriously,” Kallai said.
 

Still in disbelief

Charles Elkins Sr. and his wife, Nancy, recently celebrated their 45th anniversary.

The pair raised six sons and an adopted daughter. They live in a modest home in Sandy Township. Perhaps one of their biggest expenses in recent years has been their long-distance phone bill.

They talk to Clarence, their fifth son, nearly every day, accepting his collect calls from prison.

“We love him and we believe him,” Nancy said as tears fill her eyes.

Her husband agrees.

“I know that Clarence did not do this awful crime. It’s not in him,” he said.

Their sons have helped finance the legal bills in what has become a frustrating foray through numerous attorneys.

An appeals court upheld the guilty verdicts. So their hope now rests with Adams and a bid for a new trial. A hearing is set for July 30.

“I know it’s been a long, trying ordeal for all of the family. The family was close before all this came up but now the family’s even closer,” Charles Elkins Sr. said.

They insist their dedication is built on logic, not loyalty. There are too many unanswered questions for them and no physical evidence to back up the jury’s decision.

“I’d probably be the first one to say, ‘If he did the crime, you have to pay for it,’ said brother Charles Elkins Jr. “But I don’t think he did.”

Even if Adams rejects their attempts, the group says it will continue its efforts.

“No matter what the court says, nothing will ever change how we feel about it,” Charles Elkins Jr. said.
 

Without Dad

Left behind when Elkins went to prison is his wife of 20 years and two teen-age sons.

“I became an adult that week. I had to. I lost my childhood,” said Clarence Elkins Jr., now 19.

He and his brother, Brandon, speak to their father as much as they can. They talk about spending time at Atwood Lake, fishing and hanging out.

“It’s time for him to come home,” 16-year-old Brandon said. “And he is coming home.”

Since the trial, Melinda Elkins has renewed her relationship with her niece and sister. No one blames the little girl.

But Melinda Elkins said her fear remains.

The real killer, she said, remains free. Why not just bring the other suspect in for questioning or a DNA test?

“I want to be able to put my mother to rest, get justice, have Clarence come home and put the person responsible in his place.”

You can reach Repository writer Dave Sereno at (330) 580-8317 or e-mail:

dave.sereno@cantonrep.com