Tuesday, June 19 , 2018, 11:14 am | Fair 64º


Connie Schultz: One Man’s Life Is Spared, But That Isn’t Enough

Rachel Troutman and young lawyers like her are our greatest hope for righting wrongful convictions

In 1999, Rachel Troutman was sleepwalking through college, when a public defender came to her criminology class and gave a speech that shook her wide awake.

Connie Schultz
Connie Schultz

“It was right after Wilford Berry had died,” she said, referring to the first person executed in Ohio after a 36-year moratorium. “Joe Bodine (Ohio’s public defender at the time) started telling us about all the procedural problems in death penalty cases, and it hit me: Here we were, talking about form over substance when a man’s life was at stake.

“I’d always known that people who need the most help usually get the least. But that was the day when I realized what I had to do about it.”

Troutman called the Ohio public defender’s office and said she wanted to work for them. The response: Go to law school first.

She took the LSAT and was accepted to Ohio State University’s law school, where she told anybody who’d listen that she was going to be a public defender for death row inmates. By the time she passed the bar in 2003, she was already working full time for the Ohio public defender.

Last Thursday, Troutman delivered the news to Ohio death row inmate Kevin Keith: Gov. Ted Strickland had decided to spare Keith’s life. This never would have happened without her.

“There were a lot of attorneys before Rachel on Kevin Keith’s case who never came up with the missing evidence she dug up,” her boss, Ohio Public Defender Tim Young, said in a phone interview. “This was a team effort in our office, and I’m proud of all of our lawyers, but Rachel deserves to be congratulated for this. She never gave up on Kevin Keith.”

Keith was convicted in 1994 for the murder of one child and two adults. He always has insisted he is innocent. His case became a national story after a politically diverse group of attorneys general, judges and prosecutors called for clemency after Keith’s team of lawyers, headed by Troutman, discovered new evidence.

Last month, the Ohio Parole Board voted unanimously to deny Keith clemency. He was scheduled to die Sept. 15. Ohio’s governor was his last hope. Like so many, I urged Strickland to show mercy. I’m far from alone in thanking God that he did.

“Kevin’s off death row, and it’s a first step,” Troutman told me Thursday. “Now we have to figure out how to get him out of prison.”

The obstacles keeping Keith from freedom loom large. Significant new evidence already exists, but Troutman said she and other lawyers will have to uncover even more because of procedural rules.

This is why I’m writing about 33-year-old Troutman.

She and young lawyers like her are our greatest hope if we are ever to bring about the change that will prevent the miscarriage of justice that sends hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocent people — most of them black men — to prison for crimes they did not commit.

I first started reporting on wrongful convictions in 2002, after Michael Green served 13 years for a rape he did not commit. (Click here to read his story.) Writing about Green’s case and what happened to him in the years after his release from prison convinced me that our criminal justice system is seriously flawed and too often empowers prosecutors who cherish codified disadvantages for the underprivileged.

So far, Troutman has had to tell three men they would have to die. She has witnessed all of their executions.

“They asked me to be there,” she said. “How could I not go?”

She is full of stories about the men’s families, including the daughter who didn’t want to hang up the phone because she knew it was the last time she would hear her father’s voice.

“A piece of you dies with each case,” she said.

Troutman said there is a persistent myth about criminal defense lawyers. “People think we’re insensitive to the victims’ side.”

She knows that isn’t true — and for the worst of reasons. Her aunt was murdered by her ex-husband earlier this year. He pleaded guilty last week.

I asked her what she wants for this man who strangled the mother of two daughters.

“I don’t want him to be executed,” Troutman said, adding that not all of her relatives feel the same way.

She does, however, hope the killer is locked up “for a long, long time.”

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an essayist for Parade magazine. E-mail her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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