December 6, 2002 Updated: April 17, 2011
Nancy Smith, center, with her four teenage children.
Nancy Smith, one of two people wrongfully convicted in this case 15 years ago, was released on bail February 4, 2009 pending a resentencing hearing.)
The ritual abuse hysteria that swept across the United States in the 1980s and early 1990s resulted in hundreds of innocent people being wrongfully convicted of committing a bizarre concoction of sexual acts on preschoolers. Most of those convicted were eventually freed from prison on appeal, but some innocent people remain behind bars. One of the most blatant cases of wrongful conviction occurred in Lorain, Ohio. There a politically ambitious prosecutor's office coaxed and manipulated a few Head Start preschoolers into testifying that they had been sexually abused repeatedly over a six-month period by their bus driver and some stranger -- two people who never even knew each other, but who are now serving life prison terms for crimes that never occurred in the first place.
by Lona Manning
In a stunning reversal, Nancy Smith and Joseph Allen have been ordered back to prison to resume their lengthy sentences after two years of freedom. This past January, the Ohio Supreme Court overturned Court of Common Pleas Judge James Burge’s February 2009 ruling that set them free from their living nightmare. Smith and Allen remain free for the time being while the decision is appealed.
Lorain County Prosecutor Dennis Will contends that he had to appeal Judge Burge’s action to a higher court because the precedent set by Judge Burge would have allowed thousands of others to appeal their sentences as well. Smith’s lawyer found a clerical error in her sentencing order, which led to Judge Burge’s decision to set aside their sentences. Lorain County successfully argued that Judge Burge had no authority to free them and should have merely corrected the error. While Prosecutor Will still maintains that Smith and Allen were guilty of heinous crimes against children, Judge Burge became convinced of the pair’s innocence after reviewing their case.
Judge Burge told the Chronicle Telegram that because of the ruling he has no alternative but to send two innocent people back to prison. “I never thought I would witness anything quite so tragic in the criminal justice system, much less be any part of it,” the judge said.
The dramatic twists and turns in the case have finally reawakened media interest. In recent weeks, Rachel Dissell of the Cleveland Plain Dealer has reported that:
Lorain Police Chief Cel Rivera, who was involved in investigating the case, admitted to Nancy Smith’s daughter that he now doubts Smith’s guilt; the long-suppressed video of the police line-up of Joseph Allen demonstrates that children were coached to finger Allen; (click here for (part 2) and (part 3) of the video); one of Allen’s child accusers now says he has doubts that he was molested.
Smith’s and Allen’s lawyers have vowed to continue to fight on behalf of their clients and the Ohio Innocence Project is also investigating the case.