Ohio death row inmate granted hearing to consider new trial in 1994 slaying
Amber Hunt, Cincinnati Enquirer - Published 10:05 p.m. ET Dec. 5, 2019 | Updated 8:08 a.m. ET Dec. 6, 2019
Death row inmate Elwood Jones has been granted something unusual in criminal court: the chance to argue for a new trial.
Jones, now 67, was convicted in the September 1994 beating death of Rhoda Nathan, a guest at the Embassy Suites in Blue Ash, where Jones had worked. His execution is scheduled for April 2021.
Jones has long maintained his innocence but, so far, he could only get defense lawyers to hear him out, not judges.
That changed Nov. 19 when Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Ethna Cooper opted not to dismiss Jones' motion for a new trial, which is typically what happens when such a request is made. Instead, she agreed to choose a date
Dec. 10 for the hearing, which likely will come early next year.
Jones' motion accuses Blue Ash police of suppressing evidence in the case, warranting a new trial. In fall 1995, about a year after 67-year-old Nathan was bludgeoned to death, a man allegedly confessed to his wife that he'd killed the woman and framed a black man for the crime. The wife, a prisoner in the county jail, told a cellmate, who in turn called police to report the round-robin confession.
Hamilton County prosecutors argue that the evidence shouldn't be weighed because it's "triple, if not quadruple, hearsay."
"No court should grant a new trial in a capital case based upon uncorroborated triple hearsay," Assistant Prosecutor Philip
Cummings wrote in his reply to Jones' motion. Cummings also called the motion "weak" and "meritless."
Jones' lawyers say hearsay exceptions should apply. The alleged confessor was still alive in 1995 and could have been interviewed, but because police didn't share the information with Jones' lawyers, no one knew to contact him. The man died in 2011. His wife died in 2002.
Jones only learned of the statement in 2016. The cellmate whom his wife allegedly told about the murder is still alive and willing to testify, said Erin Barnhart, Jones' lawyer.
Retired Hamilton County Detective Pete Alderucci, one of the initial investigators in the case, told The Enquirer in a recent interview that he still believes Jones is guilty. He points to two pieces of evidence:
Jones suffered a cut on his hand that a doctor testified was likely a "fight bite" – an infection that comes from hitting another person in the mouth. Nathan had been pummeled so hard in the face that she lost two teeth.
Police said they found a necklace belonging to Nathan in a work toolbox in Jones' car.
Jones has long argued that he was framed by overzealous officers who, he alleges, planted the pendant in his car.
Statistically, Jones' efforts to appeal aren't likely to succeed. Data from the Federal Judiciary indicate that the U.S. Court of Appeals reverses about 6% of criminal convictions.
Jones had worked at the hotel where Nathan, of New Jersey, was sharing a room with friends. She'd been left alone to shower. When her friends returned, they found her on the floor.
Assistant Prosecutor Mark Piepmeier, who'd handled the initial case against Jones, said in a June interview that the crime scene posed some challenges because hotel rooms inherently have a lot of trace evidence – DNA and fingerprints, for example.
"The conclusive piece of evidence was this pendant," he said. "We thought it might have just been costume jewelry, then we find out from her family that her husband had had that custom-made for her. So it was a one-of-a-kind piece of jewelry that's in his toolbox."
Jones' case was featured on an episode of the TV show "Forensic Files" in 2001. The episode, called "Punch Line," focused on the presence of a specific type of bacteria in Jones' hand injury to secure his conviction.