The following editorial was published by the Akron Beacon Journal on November 11, 2016.
Kevin Keith sat on death row for 16 years. Then, in 2010, Ted Strickland commuted his sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole, rightly citing “too many real and unanswered questions” about whether Keith committed a triple murder at an apartment in Bucyrus. That was partial justice for Keith, once a defensive tackle at Canton-McKinley High School. He still needs a way to get back into court for a new trial in which the totality of the evidence would be examined.
Perhaps that opportunity now will come. The Columbus Dispatch recently reported on grave questions raised about the work of G. Michele Yezzo, a longtime forensic scientist at the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation. She retired in 2009 after more than three decades on the job. An examination of her personnel file has revealed years of erratic behavior, threatening and otherwise hostile, even a suspension in 1993.
Most troubling, the record points to concerns that Yezzo slanted her results and conclusions to favor the police and prosecution. The Dispatch noted she often conducted her analyses of murders and other high-profile felonies with little oversight.
Lee Fisher, a state attorney general in the 1990s, told the Dispatch he “would call for an investigation into every case where her findings and conclusions were instrumental in the final result,” citing “an obligation to the integrity of the criminal-justice system. … ”
Jim Petro, the attorney general a decade later and part of the current Kevin Keith defense, described Yezzo’s work to the Dispatch as “shoddy at best.” He added: “Any case where she provided forensic evidence that resulted in a conviction now comes into question.”
Mike DeWine, the current attorney general, told the Dispatch that his office has conducted two such reviews since learning about the problem in 2015. He reports the examinations turned up no issues.
That doesn’t seem to fit the Keith case. A key factor for the prosecution was the Yezzo analysis of a partial impression of a license plate number left in a snow bank by the alleged getaway car. In 2010, the Keith defense hired one of the nation’s leading forensic experts to review the analysis. He found the impression did not match the bumper of Keith’s car. He also concluded there wasn’t sufficient detail about the plate numbers.
Add these findings to the erosion of eyewitness testimony, plus credible information pointing to a likely alternative suspect, and the case against Keith weakens to the point of a wrongful conviction.
As the Dispatch reported, a judge in Huron County already has dismissed the 1993 murder conviction of a man due to the sloppy work of Yezzo.
Kevin Keith came within two weeks of execution. Imagine the horror if he had been put to death by the state and six years later all of this surfaced. That helps explain why Ohio lawmakers must enact the recommendations of the Supreme Court task force on the death penalty, especially those items designed to prevent wrongful convictions and execution. It also points to doing what is just, granting Keith a new trial.