On June 24, 2009, Nancy Smith, a Head Start bus driver, and Joseph Allen were exonerated after a Lorain County judge granted their motion for a new trial and then acquitted them in the face of mounting evidence of their innocence. They each spent 15 years in prison for a crime they did not commit. How could this happen?
In the early 1990s, the news program 60 Minutes aired an episode in which a daycare provider had molested the young children in his care. The culprit was convicted. The parents sued. Because the center was funded by the federal government through the Head Start program, the parents were able to collect huge settlements. After this episode aired, copycat claims were made against Head Start daycare providers in many states across the country. Many providers were convicted and sent to prison, with the parents then receiving huge settlements. In many of these cases, the authorities now realize that the charges were concocted and the defendants have been exonerated and set free. Nancy Smith and Joseph Allen are the most recent innocents who have been recognized by the courts as victims of this unfortunate pattern.
The case against Smith and Allen was based on the testimony of very young children who had been coached by their parents. The children alleged that on certain days Smith did not take them to school; rather, she took them to different locations and spent the day molesting them with Allen. Despite numerous inaccuracies, including the fact that the children's stories contradicted each other and often did not make sense, the jury convicted Smith and Allen. The parents received settlements in the millions of dollars.
Many OIP students worked on the case over the years, along with private investigator Martin Yant, and developed strong evidence of innocence. The parole packet submitted to the court, which outlined the grounds of innocence, was written by former OIP students Bobbi Madonna '07 and Whitney Sheff '07, when they worked as OIP Fellows. The evidence they set forth included: