Freed Man Not at Bank During Killing, Jury Told

Article published in The Columbus Dispatch


Just as he did 29 years ago — and every day since then — Timothy Howard took the stand yesterday to say he is innocent of bank robbery and murder.

“I had nothing to do with this crime,” Howard told a jury at a wrongful-imprisonment trial in Franklin County Common Pleas Court, where he is seeking financial payback from the state for what he calculated was 26 years, 4 hours and 6 minutes spent behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.

Howard, now 52, said he was at his parents’ home all day on Dec. 21, 1976. That is when the former Ohio National Bank branch on E. Main Street was robbed by two black males, one of whom killed guard Berne Davis.

When he heard police were looking for him in connection with the robbery, Howard figured it was a mistake and voluntarily went to the Downtown police station.

His sister, Beverly Howard Chatters, testified she also went to the police to tell them her brother was home with her all day and couldn’t have committed the bank robbery.

Chatters said she was threatened with arrest by police detectives but later testified anyway.

“They said if I was lying, I could go to jail.”

Even though all charges against Howard and his East Side friend, Gary Lamar James, were dropped three years ago, a quirk in state law requires Howard’s attorneys to prove in a civil case that he is “actually innocent,” in essence proving something didn’t happen.

A finding of innocence by the jury of four men and four women would qualify Howard to go to the Ohio Court of Claims, seeking his share of a possible $5 million wrongful-incarceration settlement.

His attorneys yesterday took testimony from a former Columbus police fingerprint expert and a retired bank teller.

Ron L. Huston said that a palm print and four fingerprints taken from the crime scene in 1976 did not match Howard’s prints. The existence of the fingerprints was withheld from Howard’s trial attorneys in 1977.

Mary Jane Martin, an assistant to Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, persuaded Judge David E. Cain to block testimony from Judge John P. Bessey, who was Howard’s original trial attorney. She argued it isn’t relevant to the case.

Martin aggressively questioned Howard’s witnesses and argued with his attorneys.

“I don’t have to prove anything,” Martin said during a heated exchange.

She told jurors that even though Howard’s charges were dismissed in 2003 and he was released from prison, “that does not mean anyone has determined he has not participated in this crime.”

James D. Owen, one of Howard’s attorneys, countered, “There’s not one single piece of evidence that ties Timmy to this crime.”

Also tesfifying was Ann Geyer Maselli, a teller at the bank.

Maselli said that she routinely wiped down her teller’s cage several times a day.

“I liked it neat. I liked it clean,” Maselli said.

Howard’s attorneys said that means the fingerprints found in Maselli’s teller cage most likely belonged to the robbers—and not Howard.