(Cincinnati, OH — September 14, 2020) The New York-based Innocence Project and Cincinnati law firm Gerhardstein & Branch have negotiated a settlement with the City of Cincinnati for an unprecedented audit of Cincinnati Police Department’s (CPD) DNA-based homicide cases. This marks the first time that a police department has agreed to turn over years of DNA database reports and homicide case records to a court-appointed, independent auditor to determine whether DNA evidence identifying alternate suspects was properly disclosed.
The settlement arises from a civil rights lawsuit filed in 2018 against the City and two police officials on behalf of Joshua Maxton. In June 2015, 26-year old Maxton, a Black man, was arrested for the murder of an eighteen-year-old Black woman who was shot and killed while sitting in a parked car in the North Avondale neighborhood of Cincinnati. Maxton was charged with murder and jailed for a year before trial. At all times, he maintained his innocence and turned down plea offers. Ultimately, he was unanimously acquitted by a jury in June 2016.
During trial his defense attorneys learned the police had been notified seven months earlier, while Maxton was in jail, that key DNA evidence found at the crime scene yielded a DNA databank “hit” to an alternate suspect, whom the defense pointed to as the true murderer.
The audit will be overseen by a “Special Master” appointed by the court. Federal Magistrate Judge Stephanie Bowman has appointed Chicago lawyer Ronald Safer, a former federal prosecutor and an experienced criminal defense and civil rights attorney, to serve in that role. Safer, who is donating his time to the audit, will work with a team of pro bono attorneys and students from the Ohio Innocence Project to review the cases in question.
“Joshua Maxton was close to spending his life in prison for a murder he did not commit because critical evidence was not revealed until trial. A miscarriage of justice was narrowly averted. We are proud to announce that the CPD agreed to cooperate in an audit of other similar cases to make sure no Cincinnatians were wrongfully convicted of homicide. This is a remarkable settlement for Mr. Maxton, Cincinnati, and our community,” said Jennifer Branch, local attorney for Joshua Maxton.
“This settlement is historic. It acknowledges that Josh Maxton sat in jail for more than seven months on a wrongful murder charge, even after police were notified of DNA evidence that supported his longtime claim of innocence,” said Nina Morrison, Senior Litigation Counsel for the Innocence Project. “It also provides a novel and rigorous process to determine if other innocent people in Cincinnati were convicted of crimes they did not commit. Ultimately, this settlement is a powerful tool that protects public safety in Cincinnati — since any undisclosed DNA database ‘hit’ may well mean that the real perpetrator of a crime was identified, but never brought to justice.”