I blogged last week about the Ohio Innocence Project’s victory in the 6th Circuit court of appeals in the Al Cleveland case. Here’s a great story about the case written by a reporter who got to know Al over the years:
CLEVELAND, Ohio — The phone on my desk rang, and a deep, gruff voice came on the line.
The private investigator with a Chicago accent so thick you could cut it with a knife wanted to talk about the murder conviction of Lorain’s Alfred Cleveland.
I knew Cleveland. I’d hired him to help illustrate a graphic novel that I wrote. Cleveland did the work quickly and expertly — from a cell in the Mansfield prison.
I told Cleveland our relationship was strictly artist and writer, that I would not report his story in the newspaper, even though he professed his innocence. I started to say that to the guy on the phone. He had other ideas.
“Shut up,” he growled.
“My name is Paul Ciolino,” he said. “Google me. I’ll wait.”
My jaw dropped. I found story after story about how this detective’s work got five men off Illinois death row who were wrongfully convicted, and how he worked with the celebrated “Innocence Project.”
This was someone to listen to. What he said in this 2006 call made me delve into Cleveland’s case and follow leads that Ciolino had uncovered, including an interview with the witness whose testimony put Cleveland behind bars. Testimony the witness said he made up.
It led to other questions about whether Cleveland was even in Lorain the night of the murder.
Last week a federal appeals court, citing the same issues I found, ordered a lower-court judge to reconsider Cleveland’s request for a new trial. The judges suggest Cleveland could be acquitted. The prison artist might soon be a free man.
My first contact with Cleveland, now 43, was in 2002. He sent me copies of his artwork after reading my weekly comic book column in The Plain Dealer. The art was impressive.
Even more impressive was that Cleveland honed his talent in his cell in the Richland Correctional Institution, where he has been serving a life sentence for the murder of a Lorain prostitute in 1991. He and three other men were convicted of the crime in 1996.
Through letters and occasional telephone conversations, I encouraged Cleveland to keep drawing and painting. Over the next few years, he sent copies of other works.
I mailed him a copy of my first comic, “Phantom Jack,” about a newspaper reporter who used invisibility powers to right wrongs. Cleveland soon responded with a cassette tape that had a Phantom Jack theme song. In the accompanying note, he said he had access to a full music studio and recorded the song by layering music and vocals.
The cassette stunned me. It was so professional that I thought perhaps he had taken an existing song and added a vocal track.
Cleveland called and asked how I liked the tape. I said it was amazing and asked if it was original or made by sampling other artist’s compositions.
He seemed insulted.
“I did that all myself,” he said.
It was the last time I underestimated his talent.
After I got to know him, the idea that he was a convicted killer seemed less and less real.
By 2005, I was assembling artists to illustrate a graphic novel I was writing for Image Comics called “Tales of the Starlight Drive-In.”
It’s a series of connected stories set in a drive-in theater that had an original story in every movie genre: action, romance, science-fiction, crime etc. The twist was that a movie representing each genre was playing at the Starlight and figured into the plots.
“Shawshank” was the story for the prison-movie theme. It is about a man who took his girlfriend to see “The Shawshank Redemption” at the drive-in and was arrested and imprisoned the next day. The man was sentenced to the Richland Correctional Institution, with a view of the old Mansfield prison where “Shawshank” was filmed — a bitter reminder of his last night of freedom.
I wanted simple drawings that captured the helplessness and agony of prison life. Cleveland’s cell had a view of the old prison. I asked if he would illustrate that story.
I visited him for the first time and was impressed with his popularity among the guards and prison staff. We sat in a comfortable lounge area. Cleveland is a big man with a powerful presence, but one tempered with humility. We could just as easily have been talking in a coffee shop or restaurant, instead of in a prison.
We agreed that I would pay him $200 for his work.
Still, I had to get something out of the way. Over the years, I have received many letters from inmates stating their innocence and asking me and the paper to take up their cause. I told Cleveland I would not write stories about his case.
Cleveland nodded thoughtfully and said he understood. Then he smiled and said, “Just to be clear, I didn’t do what they said I did.”
He finished his assignment quickly, with the help of another inmate, A. Berry.
About a week later, in the summer of 2005, I received an oil painting from Cleveland, a stylized “Starlight Drive-In” marquee I had not expected. He said it was a gift for having faith in his talents. The painting is in the book. The original hangs in my home.
Now I was even more intrigued by the man. Quietly I looked into his case.
Cleveland and the other men were convicted in Lorain County Common Pleas Court of aggravated murder for the death of Martha Blakely. A witness, named William Avery, testified against them all in separate trials.
The verdict seemed cut and dried. I left it at that.
About six months later, Ciolino called.
He’s a player. Dan Rather called him one of the five top investigators in the country. More recently, he helped get American Amanda Knox released from an Italian prison.
What he said caused me to rethink the Cleveland case.
Ciolino said he tracked down Avery, and that Avery recanted his testimony.
Avery, living in Detroit, did this in a long statement to the FBI, and wrote an affidavit about how he lied about witnessing the murder. He was paid $10,000 in reward and relocation money for his cooperation and, early on, demanded another $10,000 for court testimony. That second demand was refused.
I met with him Avery in a chicken joint. Avery was a robust man who said he kicked a crack cocaine habit he had since he was 14, found religion, and wanted to set things right. He told me he could no longer live with his guilt. He looked like a bodybuilder, but his eyes were red-rimmed and haunted.
“I sent four men to prison for something they did not do,” he said. “It’s been tearing me up. I told the FBI the story last year  and I have been waiting for something to happen. No one has called, nothing.”
The FBI did share the confession with Lorain police and the county prosecutor’s office. In 2006, a police investigator said they did not believe Avery’s new claims.
Looking further into the case with fellow Plain Dealer reporter Mark Puente, I interviewed people who said Cleveland was in New York City at the time that he was supposed to be killing Blakely, 500 miles away in Lorain.
I learned that on the morning of Aug. 7, 1991, Cleveland was meeting with a parole officer in New York. The next morning, just hours after Blakely’s body was found, Cleveland was buying a television with his credit card at a New York appliance store. Since then, a friend of Cleveland has come forward to say Cleveland was with him the night of Aug. 7, 1991, after the last plane from New York to Cleveland had taken off.
Puente and I talked to the police officers who investigated the case. They said it was possible for Cleveland to drive from New York to Lorain, commit the murder, and drive back to New York in time to buy the TV.
They said they were sure that had the right man because there was a witness to the murder. What more would they need?
When I handed them a copy of Avery’s statement that said he lied about his testimony, the interview ended.
We published a lengthy story about the events and waited for Cleveland’s appeal to be considered.
“Tales of The Starlight Drive-In” was released in 2008 and voted the best graphic novel of the year in The Comic Buyer’s Guide Magazine’s annual fan awards. Cleveland was so happy about it, he composed a song that perfectly tells his “Shawshank” story.
That same year, Lorain County Common Pleas Judge Christopher Rothgery held a hearing to consider granting Cleveland a new trial based mainly on Avery’s change of heart.
But when it came time to testify, Avery didn’t do it after being told he faced perjury charges if he changed his earlier story.
“The judge scared him by saying he would get at least 20 years in jail for perjury if he testified the way he said he was going to,” said Ciolino. “Avery said he was willing to go to jail, but not for that long, so he pleaded the Fifth Amendment and said nothing. I’ve never seen a judge threaten a witness with jail for telling the truth.”
Last Thursday, Rothgery said he would not comment for this story.
It was that hearing that went through the appeals process. On Monday, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a lower court should give Cleveland’s case a full hearing and decide whether a new trial is warranted.
The appeals court judges suggest Cleveland has a good chance of being found innocent at a new trial.
“It surely cannot be said that a juror, conscientiously following the judge’s instructions requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt, would vote to convict,” their ruling said.
Lorain County Prosecutor Dennis Will said Avery has always been inconsistent.
“Avery has gone back and forth in his testimony more than once,” he said. “Avery has always looked out for his best interest. We know there has been contact between Avery and the Cleveland-family investigators. We don’t know what happened between them.”
In a telephone interview from prison last week, Cleveland said he’s rejoicing over the decision.
“I was wondering why other judges could not see what was so obvious,” he said. “These judges looked at the evidence, saw everything for what it was and had the courage to act on it. I know this will have to go through the lower court and I’m prepared to wait and let it go through the process. I’ve waited this long, I can wait a little longer.”
‘””He’s convinced his release is just a matter of time.
“I want to get a job, go to work every day and come home with a paycheck,” he said. “I want my wife to be able to stay home and cook meals. I want to watch my children, settle back and watch TV, and save up for nice things. I want a normal life.”
Cleveland has five grown children, one is in college and the other recently joined the U.S. Marines.
Cleveland’s wife, Roberta, has moved to North Carolina to be near the Marine.
“I have severe arthritis. The weather here is good for me, not cold like Cleveland,” she said. “We have not decided if this is where we will stay once Alfred is released, but perhaps.”
Cleveland’s lifelong friend, Daymond John, is the founder of the clothing manufacturer FUBU. He said Cleveland has a standing offer to work for him as a designer in New York City.
But the prospect of returning to New York scares Cleveland some.
“I know it would be great, but to be honest, I need to look into the lifestyle there,” he said. “I don’t know if that life is for me any more.”
Ciolino called again last week. He wanted to be sure I heard the news.
“Can you believe it?” he said, in the same gruff voice I heard before. “It’s been a long, crazy fight. But it’s finally going to happen.”