By Bekky Baker, Program Manager
Monday I left IJPC’s office to head toward the Hamilton County Jail. I stepped into the visitors center to find a woman behind a barred window with chipping paint and fluorescent lights. She directed me to a bleak visitation room with scuffed floors. The walls were covered with the new Securus video visitation technology – large silver boxes with a tv screen and two black phones hanging off the sides. Even though I was in the same building as the person I was visiting, we would still only see one another through a video screen. Some of the video boxes had small silver stools in front of them while others required you to stand. Another visitor in the room had to help me figure out which box I was supposed to sit at and then I patiently waited for Elwood Jones to appear on the screen.
It’s been two weeks since I sat behind Elwood court while his legal team presented evidence to a judge in the hopes of proving prosecutorial misconduct. Elwood has spent nearly 30 years on Ohio’s death row for a crime both myself and many others believe he did not commit. In Judge Wende Cross’s courtroom there were tall windows that streamed in light and showed the gold detailing on the molding. The defense team’s excitement coupled with their anxiety was palpable. They started their opening statement with placing seven massive binders of evidence in front of the courtroom, evidence that casts an absorbent amount of doubt on Elwood’s conviction. I sat in the second row with Sister Alice Gerdeman, CDP and Elwood’s sisters as the defense’s compelling witnesses took the stand. There was an expert on police conduct and investigation and an infectious disease expert. There was also one woman who took the stand in the hopes of rectifying a confession that was made to her years ago when a woman she met in jail confessed that her husband, Earl Reed, was responsible for the murder of Rhoda Nathan and that he had framed a black man for it.
The courtroom process was a lot more like TV than I expected but disconcerting nonetheless, even with a judge who appeared to be fair and just. At one point, Elwood pointed out who each person there to support him was to his lawyer. We were not allowed to touch him or talk to him. It is a gut wrenching experience for me to talk to people like Elwood who have been beaten down by our criminal justice system, forced to live in cells for crimes they did not commit, or even put through the horrors of prison for crimes they did commit. It is another thing to see the injustice within the court system in action. The prosecutors main argument was essentially that they do not get things wrong. Proving wrongful conviction and innocence is so difficult because our criminal justice system leaves no room to rectify mistakes and is more concerned with conviction rather than getting the right person.
On the video screen this past Monday, Elwood asked me how I thought the trial went. He also asked how my sewing projects were going and gave me a few tips on how to follow a pattern to craft a bag. He talked about the possibility of getting his life back and helping others since so many have helped him. Towards the end of our visit, the video monitor lost connection and he kept freezing. Then the screen went blank for three minutes and I could not hear or see him. The screen came back on just in time to say goodbye before we were automatically cut off at the 20 minute mark. The other folks in the room talked until the very last minute, foregoing goodbyes to continue the conversation as long as possible. The woman who helped me earlier quickly rushed out of the room lamenting, “I hate those things.”
It’s heartbreaking that Rhoda Nathan was murdered and I cannot imagine the pain her loved ones went through. But our criminal justice system’s response did little to assert accountability for the loss of her life. Our criminal justice system never holds people accountable for the wrongs they commit. It just punishes and then sends people back out into the world just as dejected if not more than they already were. And worse, our criminal justice system gets it wrong a lot more than we like to admit.
Elwood is a firey, direct, and thoughtful person. He is vegetarian and can draw some of the most amazing cards I have ever seen. He has a family that cares for him and finds sewing much easier than I do. He is more than an inmate and more than his wrongful conviction. But for now, we all wait as the judge combs through the binders of evidence to decide if Elwood will be granted a new trial.