That’s the phrase Robert McClendon will always be associated with. It was his reaction 10 years ago when DNA results were announced that conclusively cleared him of the rape charge that had cost him his freedom for the previous 18 years.
But, in this 10th anniversary year of that moment, Robert says they are not necessarily the words that stick out most in his mind from that day.
It was an exchange with Columbus Dispatch reporter Mike Wagner, whose reporting plays prominently in Robert’s story, that remains most vivid to Robert.
Heading into the proceedings to announce the results of the DNA comparison, no one was telling Robert what the results showed.
“No one would say anything about it. My family was bewildered, they were stunned,” Robert recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, the results must have come back inconclusive.’ All kind of things were going through my mind, and I will always remember this conversation with Mike Wagner.
“Mike knew I liked basketball, and he was a high school basketball player himself, so he had said, ‘If you ever get out, we’ll have to play a game of 1-on-1.’ So no one is telling me anything, and then Mike walks by and he says the words I’ll never forget, ‘You ready for that basketball game?’ “
That is how Robert McClendon learned his 18-year nightmare was drawing to a close.
McClendon, Wagner and others involved in his case – along with fellow Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) exonerees Dean Gillispie, Laurese Glover and Nancy Smith – revisited his journey to justice this week during a panel discussion, “Hello Truth, Ten Years of Freedom” in Robert’s hometown of Columbus.
Also participating were Columbus city council member Jaiza Page, who served as moderator, Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, Judge Charles Schneider of the Franklin County Common Pleas Court, former Columbus Dispatch reporter Geoff Dutton and OIP Deputy Director Jennifer Paschen Bergeron.
Robert’s case was a true landmark moment for the innocence movement in Ohio.
Dutton and Wagner had set the stage in 2008 with their award-winning series for the Dispatch, “Test of Convictions,” which showed the extreme difficulty Ohio inmates encountered when requesting DNA testing of evidence from their cases. Working in partnership with the OIP, 313 cases of inmates who had appealed for DNA testing that was not granted were examined. Ultimately, 30 that appeared most promising were sent to the Fairfield, Ohio, headquarters of DNA Diagnostics, which had agreed to do pro bono reviews.
Robert’s test was the first to come back. He became the first of five out of that initial group of 30 who would find exoneration through DNA analysis.
Robert’s case was also the first handled by Bergeron, who had been with OIP for less than a year. A 2002 graduate from UC Law, she says she didn’t immediately consider Innocence Project work as an option because it wasn’t something students were exposed to in law school at the time.
Now she’s been at it for a decade, and is OIP’s deputy director. “It was my first exoneration, and is still the fastest exoneration,” she says. “We filed in February, and he was out in August. I think his was the smoothest exoneration I’ve had so far, because the prosecutor’s office was willing to work with us and the lab moved it through quickly. It went so smoothly that I naively thought they would all be like that.”
Results of the DNA test were revealed on July 22, 2008. Less than three weeks later, after discussions between the OIP and Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien on how the case should proceed, Robert rejoined his family for a joyous celebration in Columbus. His last day before a late afternoon release included a final hearing before Judge Charles Schneider, who presided over the case.
O’Brien presented McClendon with a proclamation at this week’s program, commemorating the 10th anniversary of his release. He has been among the most open county prosecutors in the state to reviewing strong claims of innocence, saying at the time of Robert’s release, “I don’t want anybody in jail who doesn’t belong there.”
Robert says his experience has been that not all people are so willing to be fair-minded. He cites what he calls his 70-20-10 theory.
“Seventy percent of the public won’t believe you because they saw you were convicted. Twenty percent of the people feel like, ‘I hope he didn’t do it.’ Then you have the 10 percent who are your riders. They know your heart and your soul and are with you because they truly believe you.”
Support has become a major theme throughout Robert’s time since his release.
Robert was the fifth wrongfully convicted individual to be freed from prison with help from the OIP in the organization’s first five years of existence. In the 10 years since, 22 more Ohioans have joined that list. Robert is an enthusiastic member of a group of OIP exonerees which actively supports each new exoneree upon release, as they deal with issues unique to their circumstance in adapting back into free society and trying to come to grips with the psychological aftermath of being wrongfully imprisoned.
He’s also become a strong advocate for creating public awareness on the issue of wrongful convictions. Often paired together with his good friend and fellow OIP exoneree Dean Gillispie, who served 20 years for a crime he did not commit, they have shared their stories with dozens of audiences across the state in recent years.
“The message changes over the years and the message also changes with the age we are speaking to and the type of group,” says Robert, who among other heartaches suffered while incarcerated missed the funerals of two of his grandparents, both of his parents and three of his uncles. “We speak from the heart, though, with our stories, and people can identify with that. A lot of that is passion and pain, and that has to come from your heart.”
“Robert is a friend to all. He’s a friend to everyone in OIP,” says OIP Co-founder and Director Mark Godsey. “Everyone loves Robert. He is so joyful and in the moment. And he has helped so many other exonerees over the years. He’s always there in court when they get out, and always there to help them adjust.”
That’s the bright side that came out at this week’s event recognizing 10 years of freedom for Robert McClendon. But Bergeron says everyone involved with OIP knows there are other innocent people currently locked up who continue to need everyone’s best effort.
“When you look at the people that are out, you think we are doing a great job with 27 exonerations,” she says. “But when you are working inside this work and you know how many other innocent people are still imprisoned, you know there’s much more work we have to do.”