Columbus Dispatch

Article from the Columbus Dispatch


Nine months after he promised a decision, Judge Michael H. Watson has set a hearing to determine whether two Columbus men convicted of murder more than 25 years ago should get a new trial.

The Franklin County Common Pleas judge set a Dec. 5 hearing to consider new or previously withheld information in the case of Timothy Howard. An appeal by co-defendant Gary Lamar James is tied to the case.

Watson denied a request by defense attorneys that they be allowed to look at old files and evidence gathered by police and prosecutors.

However, he did order Columbus police to give him the entire original homicide file for him to examine before the hearing.

“We’re glad to get a new hearing,” said James D. Owen, attorney for Howard and James. “But we’ve got our hands tied behind our backs.”

The case has been inactive since a Jan. 29 hearing, when Watson said he would render a decision in 10 days.

The matter has been in limbo even longer, however; most of the paperwork has been in Watson’s hands since October 2000.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien declined to comment on the case.

The hearing will come two weeks before the 26th anniversary of the slaying of Berne Davis, a 74-year-old security guard shot on Dec. 21, 1976, during a robbery at the former Ohio National Bank on E. Main Street.

Howard and James, who grew up together on the East Side, were subsequently convicted of aggravated murder and aggravated robbery and were sentenced to death.

However, their sentences were commuted to life in prison in 1978 when capital punishment was declared unconstitutional in Ohio. Howard and James, both 49, have spent more than half their lives in prison despite proclaiming their innocence from the beginning.

The case got new life six years ago when James C. McCloskey and Centurion Ministries, a nonprofit foundation based in Princeton, N.J., began paying for legal help for the two inmates. Centurion has helped free 26 innocent men and women from prisons nationwide, including two from Death Row.

McCloskey called the hearing “very good news, what we’ve been waiting for.” But he said he didn’t understand why it took so long to reach this point.

“There is no doubt in my mind that both Gary James and Timothy Howard are completely innocent of this crime,” McCloskey added. “They are two innocent men who have spent 25 years in prison for a crime they did not participate in or have any knowledge of.”

James’ attorneys have new evidence to present at the hearing: results of a lie-detector test that they claim shows James was not guilty of Davis’ murder. The test was administered recently by Lynn P. Marcy of Dearborn Heights, Mich., one of the nation’s leading polygraph experts.

Owen and McCloskey contend that no physical evidence connected Howard and James to the murder, that their clients were misidentified by witnesses, and that they were framed by a now-retired Columbus police detective.