- Judge in Akron, Ohio, finds man innocent of crime for which he was convicted in 1998
- Capt. Douglas Prade was found guilty of killing his wife, Dr. Margo Prade
- New analysis of DNA from victim's lab coat excludes the defendant, court rules
- Innocence Project client released from prison hours later; prosecutors will appeal
A former Akron, Ohio, police captain who was convicted of murdering his wife in 1997 has been cleared of the crime and released after more than 14 years in prison.
Douglas Prade walked out of the Madison Correctional Institution around 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, CNN affiliate WOIO reported, a few hours after Summit County Common Pleas Judge Judy Hunter ruled he was innocent of the crime and ordered him released. County officials said they will appeal the decision.
Margo Prade, a popular doctor, was found dead of multiple gunshot wounds in her vehicle in her office's parking lot in November 1997. Douglas Prade was indicted for aggravated murder the next February and convicted in September of that year. He was sentenced to life in prison. The case dominated local headlines for months and was the subject of crime shows on national TV.
Although DNA tests conducted at the time were inconclusive, the main evidence against the captain was a bite mark on the victim's arm and lab coat that a prosecution expert matched to her husband's teeth. No weapon was found and prosecutors produced no one who witnessed the killing.
With help from the University of Cincinnati's Innocence Project, Douglas Prade appealed the conviction and eventually won a ruling from the Ohio Supreme Court in 2010 that allowed the DNA evidence to be retested using newer methods. When the results came back, none of the DNA evidence could be matched to Douglas Prade.
"The defendant has been conclusively excluded as the contributor of the male DNA on the bite mark section of the lab coat or anywhere else," Hunter wrote in her 26-page ruling Tuesday. Hunter also cast serious doubt on the reliability of bite-mark evidence, leaving the prosecution with little to go on.
"The DNA results prove what Prade has said all along, that he is 100% innocent," Carrie Woods, Prade's Innocence Project lawyer, said after a hearing last summer.
"The Court is not unsympathetic to the family members, friends and community who want to see justice for Dr. Prade," Hunter wrote. "However, the evidence that the defendant presented in this case is clear and convincing. Based on the review of the conclusive Y-STR DNA test results and the evidence from the 1998 trial, the court is firmly convinced that no reasonable juror would convict the defendant for the crime of aggravated murder with a firearm." She ordered that Prade be released from prison "forthwith."
Summit County law enforcement officials were dismayed at the decision.
"This is a gross misapplication of the law, and we will be appealing Prade's exoneration," county Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh said in a news release.
"All of the evidence clearly points to Prade as Dr. Margo Prade's killer," Akron Police Chief James Nice said in the same release. "He was proven guilty in front of a jury using a substantial amount of other evidence."
If Ohio's Ninth District Court of Appeals reverses Hunter's ruling, the state will have 30 days to file a motion seeking a new trial, Walsh's office said.
"I feel like my life is in danger and my family's life is in danger now. (Dr. Prade and her mother) are probably turning over in their graves, but God will have the final say," Tony Fowler, Margo Prade's nephew, told CNN affiliate WEWS.
"The decision is unfair and unjust, in my opinion," Tammy Fowler, a niece, told the station.