Cincinnati has its own 'Making a Murderer' case

Cincinnati has its own 'Making a Murderer' case
Cincinnati has its own 'Making a Murderer' case
Cincinnati has its own 'Making a Murderer' case
Posted at 5:45 PM, Feb 25, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-26 00:18:38-05

"Making a Murderer," a true-crime documentary series on Netflix, tells the story of Steven Avery, now serving a life sentence for first-degree murder in Wisconsin. He has maintained his innocence.

But before he was convicted of murder, Avery was wrongfully convicted in 1985 of a sexual assault based largely on the victim's eyewitness testimony. Avery was exonerated nearly 20 years later, in 2003, thanks to DNA evidence. Much of "Making a Murderer" focuses on the circumstances surrounding Avery's initial, wrongful conviction, and what impact his nearly two decades spent in prison -- and the adversarial relationship between Avery and his local sheriff's office -- had on his subsequent murder trial.

What you may not know is, three years before Avery's wrongful conviction in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, a Cincinnati teenager was wrongly convicted in a similar case.

This is the story of how his case changed Hamilton County's criminal justice system.

Watch this report.

CINCINNATI -- If Randall Ayers were tried today, he probably would not have been convicted. In fact, the case against him may have never even gone to trial.

But when Ayers was found guilty of rape, robbery and attempted aggravated murder in 1982, prosecutors and jurors relied on one piece of evidence -- an incredibly unreliable piece of evidence -- to put him away:

Witness identification.

'Girls Always Notice If They're Taller'

In the winter of 1982, Ayers was 17 years old and a senior at Western Hills High School.

Earlier that school year, a 15-year-old was dragged from a bus stop into some bushes, raped, robbed of $1 and shot in the neck.

She survived.

When police showed her a photo lineup of possible suspects, she pointed to Ayers' yearbook photo.

Then they took her into a hallway at West High when classes let out. And she picked him out again.

Ayers in court, in 1982.

Ayers had an alibi, albeit not the best one: He swore he'd spent the night of the attack smoking marijuana and drinking with friends, the Cincinnati Post reported.

"The boy himself made a terrible impression," juror Joan Schuch told the Post. "His friends did the same thing."

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters was in law school during the Ayers case, "and I watched that entire trial, and it was purely ID. Purely ID. Randall Ayers actually took the witness stand, and he came off very poorly, and the jury just convicted him."

It wasn't necessarily a swift conviction: Jurors spent 13 hours in deliberations, starting on a Friday and resuming on a Monday.

At one point, the foreman told Judge Thomas Crush they were at an impasse; he told them to keep going.

One juror, who held out the longest, said he insisted Ayers was innocent from the start, the Post reported. The victim said her attacker was one or two inches taller than she; Ayers was slightly shorter.

"Girls always notice if they're taller than you," said the juror, who asked the Post not to identify him.

But he was "badgered" by the others on the jury, he said, and finally succumbed to their pressure. The female jurors said a woman would never forget the face of her attacker.

For some, the crucial moment of the trial came when Ayers and the victim stood next to each other to show the height difference; the teenage victim nearly fainted, Schuch recalled.

Ayers wore gym shoes throughout the trial, while jurors were told the attacker wore boots, which would have made him taller, Schuch said.

"When someone gets on the witness stand and says, 'Yes that's the man who did it, I saw them,' the natural tendency is going to be to believe her."
--Elizabeth Agar, Ayers' defense attorney

Ayers was sentenced to spend 14 to 50 years in prison.

And in some ways, he was lucky to have survived long enough to gain his freedom at all: At his sentencing, Crush told the innocent teen he could've been sent to the electric chair.

"[It's] only fortunate that the attempt to kill didn't succeed, or he might be facing the death penalty," Crush said.

Ayers was locked up for nearly eight years before the real criminal confessed.

'I Don't Generally Disagree With The Jury'

In the summer of 1990, police arrested a 29-year-old man named Robert Minton, of Northside. He was a suspect in the killings of two Cincinnati women.

Robert Minton in 1990

When Minton was questioned, he gave police details of the 1981 attack -- the one Ayers had been convicted of and imprisoned for -- that only the assailant could know.

"He looked almost identical to the one who did it, but the height was different," Deters said.

The Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office took the new information to a grand jury.

They also had the rape and shooting victim, who originally identified Ayers as her attacker at his 1982 trial, look at him and Minton standing side by side. She could not say which of them was responsible.

Crush ordered Ayers be freed.

WCPO's story from the day Ayers was released, in 1990.

The judge told the Post he instructed the jurors to keep deliberating eight years earlier because he, and others, believed the exact opposite was happening in the jury room: that there were a minority of holdouts who wanted to convict the teen.

Crush didn't believe Ayers would be convicted, he said, but couldn't reverse the jurors' decision:

"I don't generally disagree with the jury, but in that particular case and on occasion, I do."

Minton was convicted in December 1991 of aggravated murder, aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, rape and kidnapping.

He'll spend the rest of his life in prison.

'It Wasn't Worth It'

Deters said the Ayers case has changed how the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office operates. Now, he said, it's simply not enough for an eyewitness to identify a suspect.

"It's been proven time and time again that that is highly unreliable, because when you have a gun aimed at you, it's very difficult to remember other things besides that gun," Deters said.

Ayers on July 20, 1990, the day he was freed.

Ayers was overjoyed to have his freedom, but also bitter. He'd missed out on most of the adolescent milestones with his friends -- prom, high school graduation, driving a car.

Up until July 20, 1990, Ayers had spent his entire adult life in prison.

The court cleared his arrest record, but it was little consolation. "I think they owe me a lot more," he said after he was released.

Ayers was eligible for compensation under Ohio's wrongful imprisonment statute, which provides compensation for the years an innocent person spends locked up, plus lost wages and lawyers' fees.

Six months after he was freed, he got $365,000 from the state.

"It wasn't worth it," Ayers said.

Years after he got his life back from the state, Ayers took it himself: He committed suicide in 2005.

"I think it had something to do with him being in jail for so many years for something he didn't do," his daughter, Kelsie, said. She lost her father when she was in the third grade.

Ayers' headstone. Photo courtesy Kelsie Ayers

Deters agreed Ayers' near-decade in prison almost certainly had some impact on his personality.

"To be wrongly accused like that and spend that much time, basically, like an animal in the zoo," Deters said.

"It tells you the significance of the job we do, and how you have to make sure. You know the old saying, 'I'd rather have 1,000...people guilty go free than have one innocent man spend a day in jail'? And that's the way I believe it."