On January 30, 2017, attorneys for Tyrone Noling, an Ohio death row prisoner who has maintained his innocence for over twenty years, asked the Ohio Supreme Court to allow DNA testing that could prove his innocence. Mr. Noling remains on death row in danger of execution despite overwhelming evidence of innocence, including the fact that all of the principal witnesses against Mr. Noling have recanted their testimony. In addition, there is no physical evidence tying Mr. Noling to the murders and recently uncovered forensic and witness evidence, withheld from Mr. Noling’s trial attorneys, points to other viable suspects.
The Merit Brief (available here: http://supremecourt.ohio.gov/pdf_viewer/pdf_viewer.aspx?pdf=813337.pdf) asks the Ohio Supreme Court to ensure that evidence from Mr. Noling’s case is tested using the best and most accurate DNA technology available, stating that “the availability of advanced DNA technology…is necessary to obtain a result…” (p. 63) The Merit Brief adds selecting the lab with this best technology for a particular case “is one of the singularly most important decisions that the trial court makes in a postconviction DNA testing case.” (p. 63)
The Merit Brief also requests the results of DNA testing which has already been performed. Prosecutors have opposed allowing Noling to access these results. As the Merit brief notes: “[b]oth science and the law require disclosure of complete and thorough results of DNA testing, if the purpose of Ohio’s DNA testing statute is to have any force and effect.” (p. 41)
Specifically, Mr. Noling seeks:
- Access to all results of post-conviction DNA testing;
- For the shell casings from the murder weapon to be run through the federal database in order to see if the murder weapon is linked to other crimes or a specific perpetrator;
- For the Ohio Supreme Court to direct the trial court to make findings when it selects a lab to perform DNA testing, and to select a lab that utilizes the newest DNA technology available in 2017;
- For an appropriately selected lab to make the scientific determinations listed in Ohio’s DNA testing statute based on scientific testing rather than subjective and untested observations.
On December 21, 2016, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in State v. Noling (https://supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2016/2016-ohio-8252.pdf) that death row prisoners should have the same type of appellate court review of decisions denying DNA testing that other prisoners have. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that they would conduct such a review for death row prisoners. That decision allowed Mr. Noling to continue his efforts to secure DNA testing that could exonerate him and lead to the true perpetrator.
In 1996, Mr. Noling was wrongfully sentenced to death for the murders of Bearnhardt and Cora Hartig in rural Portage County, Ohio, who had been tragically shot to death in their home in 1990. Neither Mr. Noling’s fingerprints, nor those of his alleged accomplices, were found in the Hartig home, despite uncontroverted evidence that the perpetrator touched many items and ransacked the home. Primitive DNA analysis of a cigarette butt found at the crime scene excluded Mr. Noling and his alleged accomplices. No eyewitnesses placed Mr. Noling or his young friends at the scene of the crime.
The lack of evidence led then-Portage County Sherriff Kenneth P. Howe to discard Mr. Noling and the other youths as viable suspects, saying “It just didn’t fit.”
That the boys even became suspects is puzzling. The police had absolutely no physical evidence from the crime scene pointing to any of them. The only thing that the police did have was the fact that in early April 1990, Mr. Noling and his friends were involved in a handful of minor thefts and two bumbling home robberies, including one in which Mr. Noling accidentally discharged a .25 caliber gun. This gun that did not match the Hartig murder weapon. Not only did these crimes take place in another town miles away, they were strikingly different in nature from the cold-blooded murders of the Hartigs.
Statements of the three young witnesses were obtained by the prosecution’s investigator and used to build a case against Mr. Noling. However, evidence developed since trial indicates that the statements of these witnesses were produced through coercive interrogation tactics and possess indicia of false confession. Experts have found that these statements “should be classified as unreliable.” [http://bit.ly/1rag5Fw] [http://bit.ly/23GZdHr]
Despite the troublesome doubt about the reliability of Mr. Noling’s conviction, he has yet to receive a hearing on the merits of his innocence claims. The Ohio Supreme Court is expected to schedule oral argument on DNA testing after briefing is complete.
A short video about Mr. Noling’s case can be accessed here: https://vimeo.com/193942101