Late on a Sunday night in July 1994, three teenage friends – Raymond Allan Warren, Chaunte Hunt and Antonio Johnson – were working on Warren’s moped when a man in a green Ford Granada rolled up, asking them to sell him drugs.
Warren, who was 16 at the time, said the teens told the man they don’t sell drugs and they walked away.
Minutes later, they heard shots ring out. The Ford Granada crashed into a house on Kilmer Street in Dayton and 41-year-old Wendell Simpson later died from the gunshot wounds.
Warren, who came to the scene on his moped, agreed to a police interview, waived his rights and volunteered to have his hands swabbed for gunshot residue.
Despite his cooperation and insistence that he had nothing to do with the crime, prosecutors quickly charged Warren.
They found chemicals on his right hand that could indicate Warren, who is left handed, had fired a gun.
After being questioned by detectives at the police station without their guardians, Hunt and Johnson, then ages 16 and 14, respectively, pointed the finger at Warren.
Following a five-day trial, jurors deliberated for a few hours and delivered a guilty verdict. The judge sentenced Warren to 18 years to life in prison. He entered adult prison at age 17.
Wrongful Conviction Project takes on case
Joanna Sanchez, director of the Ohio Public Defender Wrongful Conviction Project, which represents Warren, only has the bandwidth to take on the best cases. She thinks Warren’s case fits the bill.
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The case against him is loaded with red flags often seen in wrongful conviction cases, she said. And the evidence against him has crumbled over time.
Hunt recanted in 1999, saying he lied under pressure from police.
“I lied because I was told that if I didn’t say that Allan shot that man that I would be charge with the murder of the man. I was scared of what could be done to me,” Hunt said in a sworn statement recanting his previous testimony.
Johnson recanted in 2008. He was 14 years old when two police cruisers showed up and cops took him to the station for questioning – without his grandmother present.
The gunshot residue test – the third piece of evidence – has been discredited unless three chemicals are present. Warren’s test showed two chemicals, which are also common in brake linings. Warren had been fixing his moped that night.
“The evidence against Raymond ultimately came down to two scared juveniles – who each appeared to believe they would be charged with murder unless someone else was implicated – and barium and antimony on Raymond’s nondominant hand,” Sanchez argued in court filings on Warren’s behalf.
Sanchez noted that false accusations are factors in 60% of exoneration cases and false or misleading forensic evidence are factors in 24%.
Over nearly three decades, Warren has steadfastly maintained that he is innocent.
The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction did not allow Warren to be interviewed for this story.
“We didn’t have any money – still don’t,” said Warren’s mother, Mary Miller, of Dayton. “Basically because we didn’t have any money he fell into the cracks and they are not willing to let him out of those cracks… He has had the deck stacked against him all this time and we’re fighting vigilantly.”
What will ‘touch DNA’ tests on shell casings show?
While in prison, Warren tried to represent himself to ask for a new trial based on the recantations and the discredited gunshot residue test. Procedural rules gave him a “reasonable” amount of time after discovering this new evidence to file paperwork for a new trial.
Warren, and later the Ohio Public Defender Wrongful Conviction Project, spent six years litigating whether Warren had filed court paperwork on time. They lost.
Now Sanchez is taking another approach.
She is asking Montgomery County courts to allow “touch DNA” testing on three shell casings found near victim that night. If Warren’s DNA isn’t on the casings, it’d be another factor in his argument that he was wrongfully convicted.
Montgomery County Prosecutor Mathias Heck is opposing the DNA testing, saying even if Warren’s DNA isn’t on the shells, it wouldn’t prove he didn’t fire the gun.
“It is also possible that an item could be touched by an individual and that person’s DNA may never be left behind,” Heck’s office said in a written statement.
It’s unclear when or how the court will rule on the application for post-conviction DNA testing.
Miller said she is grateful to Georgetown University’s “Making an Exoneree” documentary film project for shining a light on Warren’s case.
She described the Wrongful Conviction Project and “Making an Exoneree” as valuable resources. “Unfortunately, there are so many poor people like myself and my son, there is just not enough pro bono offers out there,” Miller said. “If you get one, it’s a miracle. If they stick with you, it’s the second miracle.”
Laura Bischoff is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.