Joint Committee on Victims Services
April 13, 2016
Chairman Coley and members of the Committee, my Name is Melinda Elkins Dawson. Thank you for allowing me to share my perspectives today. First I want to tell you what happened in my case, and then I want to share some thoughts on how you can move forward with your work.
On Sunday morning, June 7th 1998, I woke up to a horrific nightmare.
I was home with my husband Clarence Elkins and our two sons, Clarence aged 15 and Brandon aged 12. Suddenly, we were confronted by the Carroll County police department, all suited up in swat team gear. It was chaotic, and confusing to say the least.
They held Clarence and our oldest son on one part of the property and myself and my youngest son on the front porch. I was screaming and demanding to be told what was going on. The Deputy Sheriff told me that on that morning the Barberton Police Department received a call to the home of my 58 year old mother, Judith Johnson. They had found my mother dead. She had been raped and brutally murdered. Also, my six year old niece had been raped and brutally attacked and left for dead. By God’s grace she survived the attack. He went on to tell me the reason they were there was to secure our home, because my niece was stating that the attacker was her Uncle Clarence, my husband. Clarence was arrested and charged with First Degree Capital Murder and 3 counts of rape. As you can imagine the devastation that followed was enormous. As tragic as this was, the nightmare did not end there.
In the ensuing days that followed, I was denied any information about what was happening. My mother had been murdered, I was informed by police banging on my door and treating me like a suspect. Even when everything calmed down, there was still no assistance. Imagine how you would feel if someone said “Your mother has been killed” and then just walked away? I was in a fog. I needed someone to explain what was happening – the procedures that take place.
The police department gave me nothing in way of pamphlets or even a list of agencies which provide victim services to help me deal with this tragedy. My sons and I were literally abandoned and left to fend for ourselves. Our home was taped off with investigation tape and we were not permitted to enter, even to get our shoes. We were immediately homeless and only had the clothes we were wearing on our backs. We were left without any emotional support, funeral cost assistance, shelter and food. We were left to survive on our own.
Clarence’s arraignment was two days later and I was completely in the dark on what to do next. I was not notified as to how long it would be for me to be able to enter my home again. As you can imagine, my focus became getting through the funeral and burial while trying to survive and take care of my boys with absolutely zero assistance.
I was contacted by mail at the house I was not permitted to enter, a letter from the prosecutor’s office telling me to come in and discuss the case. However, after learning that I was advocating Clarence’s innocence, I was never contacted again by the very organization that is set up to assist victims through that office.
Was I not a victim? Were my children not victims? That agency not only never contacted me, they never assigned anyone to check on us, nor did they assign a victim advocate to explain any of the proceedings to me.
During the 3 week trial, no one was assigned to sit with me outside the courtroom where I sat by myself for sometimes 8 hours during those 3 weeks. I had no money for food and no money for the parking deck. I was given no assistance for travel expenses, even though I had to travel 45 minutes one way each day for the trial. These are real needs the murder victim families have. I cannot express how helpful it would have been to have these things, or support of any kind.
I lost our home and was barely able to provide for my sons, all because I did not fit the normal “victim profile”? Because I challenged the prosecutors decision to charge a man I knew to be innocent, I am then unworthy of being grouped as a victim? Unworthy of assistance. Ask yourselves, is that fair? This cannot be allowed to happen.
Because we did not agree with the approach of the prosecutor, we became “bad victims.” I urge you to examine whether victim services should be housed within the prosecutors office if it means that “bad victim families” get punished by getting cut off and having services denied.
Clarence was charged with capital murder, he faced the death penalty as an innocent man. He ultimately served 7 1/2 years in prison before he was released in December 2005 fully exonerated. This came after I was able to solve my mothers murder and prove through dna the true killer. This is not a case of the justice system correcting itself. It took many long years and the hardest fight of our lives. Subsequently this led to the charges against Earl Mann. I was then offered support from the very prosecutors office that denied me originally, to which I declined. But once again I opposed the prosecutors intention to seek the death penalty for Earl Mann. They were not pleased. However I am happy to report, Earl Mann was sentenced to life in prison 2008 for the murder and rape of my mother and the assault on my niece. I’m satisfied because we got the real killer. He is being held accountable and society is protected from him for the rest of his life.
Now that you understand my experience, I want to highlight a few of the things that murder victim families need:
- We need to know the truth about what happened to our loved one.
- We need the real killer caught, and held accountable in a timely way – not in a way that makes the case drag on for decades.
- We need to know exactly what support is available to us, and how to access it.
- When a breadwinner is the victim, we need help paying the bills until we can get on our feet.
- We need someone just to help us get through the basics of life as we negotiate the weeks immediately following traumatic loss. Someone who can check to make sure the bills are getting paid on time, or even to advocate for us with bill collectors when we’ve missed payments because we can’t function normally.
- Some of us need help paying for a funeral. In California, funeral assistance for homicide survivors is available within days. In Ohio, it can take years.
- We need immediate and ongoing mental health support.
I could go on and on. But really, YOU need to do a real study of these issues. Let’s talk about that for a minute.
The only reason I knew about the meeting of this committee today is because I’m following your work. My organization’s mission includes supporting everyone affected by homicide. I am deeply concerned that there will not be a more comprehensive review of the experiences of homicide survivors in Ohio. It is my hope and suggestion that it is not too late to mandate such.
I serve as Chair of the board of Ohioans to Stop Executions. We at Ohioans to Stop Executions care about all victims of homicide. We were excited when the Supreme Court Task Force on the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty included the recommendation to study the needs or victims families and resources available to them. Recommendation #19 is what inspired the establishment of this joint committee.
As long as I am here, I want to also address the other task of this committee and help you understand something about how it relates to homicide survivors in Ohio.
We know that only about 15% of all homicides in Ohio are cases where the death penalty could be possible. Of those, only a small percentage are indicted capitally. Not all capital indictments end up being tried as death penalty cases, and not all of those tried as death penalty cases end up with a death sentence. Those who are sentenced to death often have their sentence overturned during the appeals process, so we boil it down to fewer than 3% of all those who could be executed actually staying on death row and getting executed.
I don’t know how many thousands of murders there have been in Ohio since we have had a death penalty, but there have only been 53 executions. Why do I mention this? Because it is vital that anyone whose support for the death penalty is rooted in a belief that it is for the victim’s families must understand how much of a myth that is. If the death penalty is a “service” for victim’s families in order to help them heal, then the state is denying that service to the vast majority of us. Think about that. We can do so much better to meet the real needs of homicide survivors in Ohio.
I urge you to take this opportunity to really enhance the services available for all homicide survivors. You can make a big difference if you take that job seriously by conducting a much more comprehensive study of the needs and experiences of Ohio murder victim family member.
You really need to think about the harm you are doing to that tiny batch of Ohio murder victim family members when you tell them that they will feel closure and better after we execute the killer. What you are really doing is putting their healing process on hold. When there is no death sentence, healing begins when the trial is over. When there is a death sentence, it’s a long and painful waiting game that sometimes never ends.
Let me make that a bit more concrete for you. Ohio currently has 26 convicted murderers waiting on this committee to do the other part of it’s work- to sort out how we are going to execute them. Ohioans to Stop Executions does not take a position on the form of execution and I’m not here to talk about that today, but know this: Of those 26 men waiting to be killed, 12 of them will have been on death row for 20 years or more by the time of their execution date. Five of them for 30 years or more. To me, that’s at least 17 murder victims families who are needlessly suffering rather than being allowed to move forward with their healing process.
If you want to really help victims families in Ohio, stop executions and put the money you are wasting on the broken death penalty system into better services for homicide survivors. Conduct a real study on the needs of victim families and the services currently available to them. And create a separation between victim service providers and the prosecution of offenders.
Thank you. I will be happy to take your questions.