In 1999, Clarence Elkins was convicted for the rape and murder of Elkins’ 58-year-old mother-in-law and the rape of his 6-year-old niece. He always maintained his innocence.
By Sara James Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/11/2007 9:40:59 PM ET 2007-03-12T01:40:59

This report aired Dateline Sunday, March 11, 7 p.m.

This is the story of how one ordinary woman transformed herself into a would-be C.S.I. investigator and embarked on a dangerous mission which would split her family. It was a mission in which she would take on police, prosecutors, and the state of Ohio in her relentless quest for justice.

Sara James, Dateline correspondent: How would you characterize the last eight years of your life?

Melinda Elkins: Horrific. Remembering all the pain, I had to deal with that and still carry on a normal life. I had no clue something like this could ever happen.

For Melinda Elkins, everything changed on June 7, 1998.  She’d been caring for a sick son while her husband Clarence had been out drinking. Suddenly they heard a commotion outside.

Melinda Elkins: Clarence went outside because we heard someone coming up the driveway really fast.

It was the police, more than a dozen of them, swarming all over the property.  One deputy started questioning Melinda.

Melinda Elkins: He kept asking me questions of who I was, what my mother’s name was, and you know, I’m screaming at him to tell me what is going on. And I said, "Is she okay?"  And he said, "No ma’am, she’s been murdered." 

James: This is your mom?

Melinda James: Yeah (crying).

As Melinda later learned, her mother, 58-year-old Judy Johnson, had been asleep on her living room couch when she was savagely strangled and beaten so badly her nose, jaw, collarbone and skull were all broken.

Then she’d been raped.

What’s more, that night, Melinda’s mother had been baby-sitting Melinda’s little niece, Brooke.  The 6-year-old was asleep in bed when she awoke to the sound of murder.

Now 15, Melinda’s niece recalls that awful night in fragments.

Brooke, Melinda Elkins' niece, victim: I got out of bed and I went to the kitchen and I looked and I seen that there was a guy in the kitchen, but it scared me, so I ran back to the bedroom.

She’d cowered under the covers pretending to be asleep, hoping and praying that the intruder hadn’t seen her.

James:  That same man came back for you?

Brooke Sutton: Uh-huh. I just remember like when I went back to the room. He came in there and then I just remember like I blacked out and then - that’s it.

Brooke was horribly beaten, raped, and left for dead.  Miraculously, she regained consciousness the next morning, and was able to find the phone and call a neighbor for help.

(Answering machine) Brooke Sutton: “I’m sorry to tell you this, but my grandma died and I need somebody to get my mom for me. I’m all alone. Somebody killed my grandma.  Now please, would you get a hold of me as soon as you can. Bye.”

When Brooke couldn’t reach anyone on the phone, she ran to a nearby house, where another neighbor was giving her children breakfast.  

Brooke waited on the front porch until the woman could drive her home. When Brooke arrived home about 45 minutes later, her mom— Melinda’s only sister, April Sutton, could hardly recognize her.

April Sutton, Brooke’s mom: The first thing that I remember is opening the door and my daughter Brooke was standing there and she was covered from head to toe in blood and she was trying to tell me that something was wrong with my mother.

James: When you saw her, you must have been terrified.

April Sutton: I ask her what happened to her, and where my mother was. And she had told me that they had been attacked and that my mother was stabbed laying in front of the couch dead.

Brooke’s father ran to the house, found Brooke’s grandmother, and called police.

Brooke’s father:  My mother-in-law has been stabbed.  My little girl spent the night here and the neighbor just brought her home and said that my mother-in-law was laying on the floor dead.   And I come up here and she’s laying here on the floor.   Oh my god.

(911 call) Operator: What’s that?

Brooke’s father:  She’s dead.

Who could have done it?

As it turned out, Brooke told her mother she could identify the killer... and he was no stranger.

Brooke Sutton: I told her that it looked like my Uncle Clarence.

Her Uncle Clarence, Melinda’s husband.

Within the course of a few dizzying minutes, Melinda would learn that her mother had been murdered and would watch helplessly as her husband, Clarence, was arrested and charged with the crime.

James: Your niece, who knew your husband well, was saying that he was the person who attacked her?

Melinda Elkins: Yes. Those were her first words, that it looked like Uncle Clarence.

Melinda Elkins was grappling with the incomprehensible:  Just hours before, she’d learned her mother had been brutally killed... her niece raped and left for dead. 

Now detectives at the Barberton, Ohio police department had just charged her husband Clarence with the crimes.

Melinda Elkins:  The whole feel of it was just kind of surreal. I remember thinking, “This can’t be happening.”

What made the situation even more surreal was her husband’s accuser was their beloved niece, Brooke Sutton.

And yet Melinda believed wholeheartedly in her husband’s innocence.

Sara James, Dateline correspondent: You were convinced he hadn’t done it?

Melinda Elkins: “Convinced” is not the word. I absolutely knew 100 percent that he did not do that.

And it wasn’t just that she’d been married to Clarence for 18 years and knew his character.  Ironically, Melinda’s confidence in her husband’s innocence stemmed from an incident which infuriated her.  On the night of her mother’s murder, Melinda knew Clarence had been out late—drinking—at a local bar. 

James: Did you have an alibi?

Clarence Elkins: Yeah. I went out and had a couple beers with my friends and came home about 2:40 a.m. Sunday morning.

Police said Melinda’s mother, Judy Johnson, had been murdered between 2:30 and 5:30 in the morning—and she lived an hour away. 

James: Were you in any shape to make that drive?

Clarence Elkins: No, no. 

What’s more, Melinda says she’d seen Clarence when he returned home since she’d been up half the night, caring for a sick child.

James: So if your husband had left your house, committed this brutal crime, and come back, you would’ve known?

Melinda Elkins: Absolutely. Absolutely.

But police were equally absolute in their conviction that Clarence was guilty. The rudimentary DNA tests available back in 1998 didn’t provide any evidence to link Clarence to the crime, but authorities relied on other evidence to build their case.  There was Brooke’s eyewitness identification, and friends of Melinda’s mother testified that her relationship with Clarence was rocky—more than enough proof for Melinda’s side of the family.

Melinda Elkins: They were mad at me. They were upset that I would lie and stick up for him.

The family split— and Melinda and her sister, both grieving the loss of their mother, stopped speaking to each other.   

April Sutton: I felt like how could someone be protecting their husband when he killed my mother and did that to my daughter. I just didn’t understand.

Brooke Sutton: I was angry. I thought she was sticking up for Uncle Clarence too.

At the funeral, Melinda was shunned by her relatives.  Standing in the cemetery that day, all alone, without her mother and without her husband, Melinda made a promise to her mom. 

Melinda Elkins: I made a vow to her on the day that we buried her, that I would find out who did this to her and Brooke. 

But as Clarence languished in jail, mounting legal bills forced her to the brink of bankruptcy.  She’d lost her job, then her home— and one year after the murder, her husband went on trial for his life… and their niece was the star witness for the prosecution. 

Brooke Sutton: I remember when they asked me to point him out, and I just remember all these people staring at me.

James: How important do you think her testimony was in that trial?

April Sutton: I believe that that was the evidence that they had.

James: She was in essence, the case.

April Sutton: Yes.

After 13 hours of deliberations, the jury reached a verdict.

On one side of the courtroom, Melinda sat with Clarence’s family.  On the other, her own family.

Melinda Elkins: I had a knot through my entire body.

Melinda Elkins: Guilty. Guilty on murder. Guilty on aggravated assault, guilty on three counts of rape.

Clarence Elkins: I couldn’t believe the words. I didn’t believe the words. I heard ‘em but it was like — "Say what you want to say. I know I’m not guilty. I’m innocent."

Melinda Elkins: Not only were they convicting an innocent man, but they were letting a murderer, my mother’s murderer, get away with what he had done.

Melinda watched in shock as her husband was led away. 

Melinda Elkins: I said “I love you.” And he turned and said “I love you.”

James: Did you tell him anything else?

Melinda Elkins: “This isn’t over.”

But it was, as far as everyone else was concerned, when a judge sentenced Clarence Elkins to life in prison.  He wouldn’t be eligible for parole until the year 2054.  It was case closed for everyone except for one person.

Melinda Elkins: I really don’t think that anybody felt that one person, initially, would be able to pull something off, taking on the whole state. And it was....

James: David and Goliath.

Melinda Elkins: That’s exactly how I felt.

James: And you didn’t even have a slingshot. What did you have? What were you armed with?

Melinda Elkins: Truth.

James: But you didn’t know the truth either. All you knew was your husband didn’t do it.  That didn’t mean you knew who did.

Melinda Elkins: That’s right.

James: And you were going to have to figure that out.

Melinda Elkins:  Exactly.

And she would have to figure it out with no money, no clues, and no idea who’d committed this crime.

Soon, she’d find herself doing her own detective work, going undercover, putting herself in dangerous situations, driven by her unwavering belief in her husband’s innocence.

Melinda Elkins had made a graveside promise to her murdered mother to track down the true killer. And, she had another reason to live up to that vow. She hoped she could find the evidence to free her husband, now serving time for that murder.

But with her high school diploma and no investigative training, Melinda didn’t know where to start. So she turned to an easy and inexpensive way to learn about criminal science: a television show.

Melinda Elkins: “Forensic Files.” I watched that every chance I could. Religiously almost.

She also contacted a private investigator, Martin Yant. Yant has worked on 12 cases that led to exonerations of wrongfully convicted defendants.

Martin Yant, private investigator: It had many of the hallmarks of a wrongful conviction.

For one thing, Yant says eyewitness testimony is extremely unreliable. 

And it’s even more unreliable when the identification was made by a traumatized little girl.  

Sara James, Dateline correspondent: So if you’re 6 years old, and you see somebody who may in some way remind you of your uncle, you may say - “I saw my uncle. My uncle did this.”

Yant: Right.

Yant also told Melinda he didn’t believe police had done enough DNA testing—which led him to doubt how thorough their investigation had been.

James: How would you grade it, A to F?

Yant: F.

Even though Yant told Melinda the odds were against her, he agreed to take the case and along the way teach her some tricks of the trade to become a detective herself.

James: How did you transform yourself from wife to mom to CSI investigator?

Melinda Elkins: Determination, I guess. And a really strong drive to find out who did this.

Melinda launched her investigation by scrutinizing her mother’s life, making a list of men Judy Johnson knew who could be potential suspects. 

Melinda Elkins: It was a little notebook that I had. It became filled with names, and just about daily I would go through it.

It included a man with a history of mental problems, a neighbor, and an acquaintance... all men with a history of violence.

She hit the rundown streets of her mother’s neighborhood in Barberton, Ohio and frequented bars where the men she suspected were known to hang out, angling for an opportunity to collect their DNA without them knowing it—from a beer glass, a strand of hair, a cigarette butt. 

James: But you had to flirt with these guys, right?

Melinda Elkins: Yeah. There were times that I got very nervous, and if you can imagine sitting across from someone and having a conversation with them while you’re thinking, “Is this the person that killed my mother and raped my niece and could this be the person?”

A terrifying thought her sons, little Clarence and Brandon, lived with everyday.  Their father had been behind bars for 3 years. Now they feared they could lose their mother, too.

Melinda’s months of dangerous field work paid off as she surreptitiously collected DNA samples from various suspects.  But then her investigation slammed into a roadblock.  It would cost thousands of dollars to test just one sample. And Melinda was broke. She’d lost everything she had helping to pay for Clarence’s defense.

Melinda Elkins: At that point after collecting this evidence, it’s now— "Who’s gonna pay for it? I certainly didn’t have any money."

And there wasn’t only the question of money. They needed information, too.

The cornerstone of the prosecution’s case had been that damning eyewitness testimony by Melinda’s little niece, Brooke, who’d said Clarence was the killer. Just how certain was she?

Private Investigator Yant said Melinda needed to talk to Brooke and her mother. 

Melinda Elkins: He said “There are things that she knows that you may not know and vice versa. You two need to come together. And we need to get her to listen that this wasn’t Clarence.”

But Melinda hadn’t seen her sister or niece in three years. To get the answers she desperately needed, Melinda had to make peace with her family. Unsure what to expect, Melinda made an unannounced visit to her sister’s home. 

Melinda Elkins: I knocked, she opened the door. And it was amazing.  She first turned away from me and immediately turned back around and was crying and just hugged me.

April Sutton: It just seemed like we had never been apart.

James: Did it feel great to be reunited with her?

April Sutton: Yes.

Melinda’s niece, little Brooke, was home that day too.

Melinda Elkins: She hesitated for just a short few seconds. And then she hugged me like she hadn’t seen me in three and a half years.

James: That must have felt great.

Melinda Elkins: It was amazing. I told her I loved her. That’s all I could say. I couldn’t talk.

And when they finally had a chance to talk, Melinda was in for a stunning revelation.  Her niece, Brooke, had a secret to share about what happened the night of the murder.

It had been nearly four years since Melinda Elkins’ husband, Clarence, was put away for rape and murder—crimes she believed he had not committed.

And now, Melinda was about to hear from someone who witnessed what happened that awful night:  her niece, Brooke.

Melinda hoped Brooke would finally tell her everything. Remember, Clarence had been convicted because Brooke identified him as her attacker.  Brooke, now 9 years old, stunned Melinda when she said she was no longer sure.  

And when Brooke later saw a photo of her uncle, she was overwhelmed by doubts.

April Sutton, Brooke’s mother: She said "It couldn’t have been Clarence. The person that hurt me and me maw had brown eyes. And Clarence has blue eyes."

Brooke Sutton: It just like stunned me.

Sara James, Dateline correspondent: You just stared at it.

Brooke Sutton: Yeah. I was just standing there looking at him. I missed him and I can’t believe I put him in jail.

Soon after, Clarence’s attorney questioned Brooke her in this videotaped deposition.

Now that Brooke’s changed her story, Melinda felt Clarence might have a chance for an appeal.

Laywer: Why did you say it was Uncle Clarence?

Brooke Sutton: Because it looked like him.

Lawyer:  It looked like him.  Um...but do you think it was Uncle Clarence?

Brooke Sutton:  At first, yeah.

Lawyer:  At first, yeah.  But do you think so today?

Brooke Sutton:  No.

Lawyer:  Do you think today, that Uncle Clarence was the same man you saw in the kitchen that night with your grandma?

Brooke Sutton:  No.

Lawyer:  Do you think he was the same man who punched you in the cheek?

Brooke Sutton:  No.

Brooke Sutton:  Because he would never do that to me. And - my grandma and—they loved each other.

Melinda was convinced the court would have no choice but to grant a new trial. 

Instead, she was stunned when a judge denied their request claiming Brooke had been pressured into changing her story by that recent family reunion.

Melinda Elkins: They said that Brooke’s recantation was coerced by me pretty much.

Now 38 years old, Clarence would remain behind bars.

James: Did you think – “I’m just not gonna do it. I’m not going to find out. I’m never going to know”?

Melinda Elkins: Sure, there were times that I felt that. But each time that there was a wall that went up, made me even more angrier.

If Brooke’s recantation wasn’t going to change things, Melinda’s only hope lay in forensic science.  

Recently the court had agreed that she could have access to DNA recovered from the crime scene. But she would have to pay to get it tested. 

Melinda was undaunted. She spearheaded rallies, kept her story alive in the media, and organized an Internet-fundraising drive which drew international interest and raised close to $40,000 dollars.

James: You felt confident that if you could get the DNA evidence from the crime scene and match that against your husband’s, it would prove he didn’t do it?

Melinda Elkins: Right.

Melinda also realized she desperately needed more legal manpower. 

Recently, she’d heard about a new legal clinic at the University of Cincinnati Law School, it was called the Ohio Innocence Project. The pro-bono program was dedicated to freeing wrongfully convicted prisoners. 

Former prosecutor Mark Godsey, Ohio Innocence Project: I was immediately taken by her credibility, her sincerity, her passion, her conviction. And you could just see that this was something different.

Former prosecutor, Mark Godsey, runs the program.

Godsey: The first thing she said is that “my mother was murdered and my husband is wrongfully imprisoned for it.” And so right there is credibility. Typically the victim’s family is the last person who will believe that the person in prison is innocent.

They talked for two hours. By the end of the conversation, Godsey assured Melinda he would start working on the case the next day.

James: Did you find yourself believing that she might have a significant case here?

Godsey: Yeah, absolutely.  I could tell that this had a lot of DNA that wasn’t tested yet. And so, that’s the crucial thing we’re looking for.

In reviewing the case, Godsey realized the state had not used DNA to convict Melinda’s husband Clarence. 

Remember, back in 1998, DNA screening hadn’t been sophisticated enough to get conclusive results in this case. But the testing procedures had improved dramatically in the years since the case was prosecuted.

Godsey: The type of DNA testing we have now five or six years later is so far advanced over that level that you can go back to these cases and get results that you couldn’t get before.

The first step for Godsey was figuring out what on the evidence list to test first.  There were close to 50 items— bedsheets, bottles, clothing—it would cost a small fortune to test everything.

Godsey: So it became a question of strategically what do we pick? What kind of testing do we do? And what do we choose to test?

They convinced a lab in Texas to test two samples at half their normal price - still $25,000.

The first crime scene sample tested had been collected from Melinda’s mother’s body.  And this time, using the latest techniques, the lab said DNA was present.

James: When they tested it, what did they find out?

Melinda Elkins: They found male DNA.

James: And that DNA, did it match Clarence?

Melinda Elkins:  No, it did not.

They also tested a pair of Brooke’s underwear found under the couch at the crime scene.

Melinda Elkins: There was male DNA on those panties.

James: And did it match Clarence?

Melinda Elkins: No, it did not.

Godsey: There was a o.o percent chance that it was Clarence Elkins.

James: That’s gotta be a homerun.

Godsey: Yeah, we thought it was a homerun that should be enough to get him cleared in 99 percent of the courts in the country.

And yet, to their astonishment, it wasn’t.   The court ruled that because prosecutors had convicted Clarence based on that compelling eyewitness testimony, a jury would’ve reached the same conclusion even if it had known his DNA didn’t match the killer’s.  

Clarence would stay in prison.

Melinda Elkins: I just couldn’t believe it. My thought was, what is it gonna take? They want me to hand this murderer on a silver platter to them? Well, by damn, that’s what I’m gonna do.           

Melinda Elkins was convinced that she’d proven her husband’s innocence.  DNA samples collected at the crime scene didn’t match her husband.  He couldn’t be the killer. 

And yet the court refused to grant Clarence a new trial. He was about to spend his seventh year in prison. But Melinda refused to give up.

Melinda Elkins: They are not gonna get away with this.  What the hell are they doing? What are they thinking?

But her only chance to win her husband’s freedom, Melinda realized, was to track down the nameless, faceless person — who had gotten away with murder.

And as Melinda went back over all the old leads she had come up with, a newspaper article caught her eye. It focused her attention on one woman who’d played a key role the morning after the murder, her mother’s neighbor, Tonia Brasiel. 

Remember, Brasiel said she was making her kids breakfast when a battered and blood-stained little Brooke showed up on her doorstep saying her grandma had been murdered.

Melinda had always wondered why Brasiel left the child on her porch for 30 minutes, before driving her home. Why didn’t she just call 911 right away?

As Melinda read that newspaper article about Tonya Brasiel, she began to suspect why.

Melinda Elkins: What jumped out at me was Tonia Brasiel’s name in the article. And what it had said was her common law husband, had been charged in three counts of rape of children under the age of 10.

In the same case, Brasiel was also charged with child endangerment.

It turned out Tonia Brasiel’s common law husband, Earl Eugene Mann, was a violent career criminal and convicted sexual predator. What’s more, he’d just been released from prison in June of 1998. 

To Melinda, it made perfect sense that a convicted sex offender staying next door to her mother would be a prime suspect.

Sara James, Dateline correspondent: Did he quickly go to number one suspect?

Melinda Elkins: Absolutely.

James: Top of the list?

Melinda Elkins: Top of the list.

Adding to Melinda’s suspicions—in that message her niece left on another neighbor’s answering machine, Brooke said – “somebody killed my grandma.”

“Somebody killed my grandma.”  “Somebody”—not “Uncle Clarence.”

By now a seasoned investigator, Melinda knew exactly what she needed.  She had to find some way to collect Earl Mann’s DNA to see if it matched those crime scene samples.

But there was a big problem because Earl Mann was behind bars sentenced to seven years.

James: How were you gonna get DNA of a guy who’s in prison?

Melinda Elkins: Send him letters of wanting to be a pen pal.

That was Melinda’s plan.  In writing to Mann, she pretended to be someone else. If he responded and licked the envelope,  a lab could test for his DNA.

James: What did it feel like to write those letters to this man who you thought killed your mother and raped your niece?

Melinda Elkins: Made me sick.

Melinda wrote 18 letters in all—and all in vain.   It seemed her cause was hopeless. 

Then she found out that Earl Mann had been transferred to a new facility, Mansfield Correctional. 

In an unbelievable stroke of luck, it was the very prison where Clarence was serving his sentence.

Melinda Elkins: It was an absolute miracle.

Even more extraordinary, Mann was transferred to Clarence’s very cell block. 

Melinda had a thought... maybe there would be some way for her husband to collect Mann’s DNA.

One of Clarence’s attorneys, Jana Deloach came up with a plan.

Jana Deloach, Clarence Elkins' attorney: I asked him, “Does Earl smoke?” And he said, yes.  So I said, “That’s it. Get a cigarette butt.”

It wouldn’t be easy. But if he could get a cigarette butt from Mann, and smuggle it out of prison, they’d be able to test Mann’s DNA.

Deloach: I did think about it a lot, about whether or not he would get in trouble, or i would get in trouble. But his life was on the line.

Melinda and the attorneys were also terrified for Clarence’s safety because Earl Mann had a violent past.  

Clarence Elkins: I come in one hot summer day and seeing out of the corner of my eye that Earl Mann was putting out a cigarette butt. I just knew at that point that I need to do something.

James: This was your chance.

Clarence Elkins: This was it. And it perfect time and opportunity to retrieve DNA from this individual.

Clarence picked the butt out of the ashtray.

Clarence Elkins: And took it into my cell and stuck it in one of my Bibles.

And just in the nick of time. Earl Mann was transferred to another prison a few days after he got the DNA. So if that opportunity hadn’t come up, it would have been lost forever.

Two weeks later, Clarence smuggled the cigarette butt out in a letter to his attorney who immediately sent it to a lab for testing.

James: And when you tested it, what did it show?

Melinda Elkins: A match to the crime scene evidence.

That’s right.  Earl Mann’s DNA matched DNA from the crime scene—DNA found on the body of Melinda’s mother and on Melinda’s  niece’s panties.

Melinda Elkins: Now tell me “no.” I dare you to tell me no.

But it was a dare Attorney Godsey was afraid to make. He feared the prosecution would say no new trial no matter what evidence he brought them. 

And so Godsey sought help from an unlikely source , another prosecutor—then Ohio State Attorney General Jim Petro. 

Petro was intrigued by the DNA evidence.

Then-Ohio State Attorney General Jim Petro: I am always one who believes that DNA is pretty darn compelling.

James: DNA is the gold standard?

Petro: It is an amazing indicator that usually proves to be just dead-on accurate.

After completing a six week internal investigation, Petro did the unheard of—and publicly pressured the local prosecutor to exonerate Melinda’s husband.

Petro: The whole concept of the justice system is to seek justice.

But legally, the attorney general couldn’t force the issue and the local prosecutor still refused to reopen the case. 

Then, Godsey learned of another, even more specific DNA test which could be conducted on a pubic hair found on little Brooke’s panties.

Godsey: So this would even be more evidence, which would raise the numbers and make the match against Earl Mann much more exact.

Finally, would this be the evidence it took to clear Melinda’s husband?

After seven years, Melinda Elkins would soon find out if all of her detective work would finally pay off. 

In the fall of 2005, a lab was testing a pubic hair found at the crime scene to see if the DNA matched her number one suspect: Earl Mann.

Another DNA match of Earl Mann linking him to the crime scene might finally convince prosecutors to free Clarence Elkins.  Attorney Mark Godsey.

Sara James, Dateline correspondent: And what did you find?

Mark Godsey: That came back as a perfect match to Earl Mann.

James: So, do you have any doubt in your mind that Earl Mann murdered Judy Johnson and raped little Brooke?

Godsey: If I were a prosecutor, which I’d used to be, I would have enough evidence to go forward and feel comfortable with it.

Once again, Melinda believed she’d delivered her mother’s killer to prosecutors.

Melinda Elkins: Well, I think that it’s time that they admit that. 

A documentary crew was following Melinda during these fast-moving developments. It was just 10 days before Christmas.  

Melinda prayed her husband would be home in time to open presents with his family for the first time in nearly eight years.

Melinda Elkins: I think this would be the best Christmas present that any of us could ever ask for.

Armed with her latest DNA evidence, Melinda and her legal team prepared for a press conference that day to call for Clarence’s immediate release. 

Then, just minutes before the press conference began, Melinda got the news she’d been waiting for.

After seven and a half years, the prosecutor was dropping all charges against her husband, admitting Clarence was an innocent man.

Ohio state Attorney General Jim Petro commended Melinda on all her detective work. But Melinda had a call to make first.

Melinda Elkins (on documentary film): You ready to come home? Then get your stuff packed, honey, cuz you’re coming home today.

On a snowy December day in 2005, Clarence Elkins, now 42 years old, walked out of prison—free at last.

Clarence Elkins: It’s a beautiful day that the Lord has made. I am very proud of everyone who has stepped forward on my behalf for justice. 

A reunion filled with tears and happiness.

Off-camera question: What do you want for Christmas?

Clarence Elkins: I got what I wanted for Christmas - my life back with my family.

A life back with his two sons and a wife to whom he owed his very liberty.

Clarence Elkins: Melinda is a very courageous and a strong person and she never gave up.

For a family torn asunder, it was a day—and night—of unity and joy.

Clarence Elkins: I know it’s real. That much I do know.

But the celebration was bittersweet. There was outrage that it had taken so long for a catastrophic mistake to be corrected.  

Clarence was furious at the Barberton Police Department and Summit Country Prosecutors. Both refused Dateline’s requests for an interview.

But when prosecutor Sheri Bevan-Walsh dropped the charges against Clarence, she admitted her office had made a mistake, and also identified Earl Mann as the new prime suspect.

Prosecutor (affiliate footage): We are expecting that by the completion of this investigation, that charges will be forthcoming against Earl Mann.

Clarence Elkins: I’m angry at everyone that had a part in arresting me and prosecuting me.  I still am angry, very angry. I put the anger behind me in the back of my head for all those years. But it comes out at times and it’s not easy to deal with.

But Clarence says he feels no anger, only forgiveness and love, towards the person whose testimony convicted him.  After all, that little girl, his niece Brooke, had been a victim herself.

Clarence Elkins: I knew she was making a mistake from the get-go. I  never once held it against her at all.

James: And you don’t today?

Clarence: And I don’t today.

But the now 15-year-old Brooke has had a harder time forgiving herself.

Brooke Sutton: I still feel guilty still, even though they tell me it’s not my fault. 

James: Why do you think you still hold onto that guilt?

Brooke Sutton: Because I put him in there. It was me.

Clarence Elkins: I wish there was something I could do to take away the hurt and pain from her as well as myself and my family.

But in the more than a year since his release, other relationships have been harder to mend.  Clarence had been gone for so long and so much had changed.  Shortly after his release, he and Melinda split up.

Melinda says she put all her energy into saving her husband, and that it came at the cost of saving her marriage.

Melinda Elkins: During the seven and a half years that I fought for this case, I pushed emotions back so far that that feeling of being his wife was gone.

Clarence Elkins: I don’t know where to pick up really. I have a tendency to go back before I was arrested. And just want to be with my sons every day like nothing ever happened.

Melinda says she feels guilty—says it’s hard not to live up to everyone’s expectations of the perfect Hollywood ending.  But she says she’s also trying to heal, as well as to find her way after achieving the almost impossible.

James: What does it feel like to have done that—to have freed someone who is innocent?

Melinda Elkins: I feel proud. But on the other hand, my work isn’t done. So, you know it’s one part of the journey that has ended but it goes on.

Goes on she says because she still needs to honor that vow she made at her mother’s grave so many years ago—to bring the true killer to justice. 

And despite those DNA test results, Earl Mann has not been charged with her mother’s murder.

Melinda Elkins: And I still feel that she’s not at rest because there’s no closure.

James: What’s it going to take for there to be closure?

Melinda Elkins: I want her to know that there is a conviction on the true murderer. And that he will never be able to do this to anyone again. And for the sake of my niece who doesn’t have to look over her shoulder the rest of her life.

The State of Ohio gave Clarence Elkins a million dollars in compensation for his wrongful imprisonment. He recently filed a $10  million dollar lawsuit against local prosecutors and police.

Prosecutors say they are still investigating the case, while Earl Mann remains behind bars until 2009.

Melinda Elkins may also see her story played out on a big screen as she’s sold the rights to her story to a Hollywood studio.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments