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83-year-old man wrongfully convicted in 1975 files federal lawsuit against city of Cleveland

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O'Malley elected to retry Isaiah Andrews in 2021, after new evidence of police misconduct led to his release from prison after almost 46 years. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]
Cuyahoga County jail

Updated: Wednesday, April 13, 2022

An 83-year-old man wrongfully imprisoned for 45 years sued the city of Cleveland in federal court Monday.

Isaiah Andrews alleges the city and Cleveland police officers violated his civil rights before and after sending him to prison in 1975 for murdering his wife.

In September of the previous year, Andrews’ wife, Regina, was found dead in a park, wrapped in hotel bedding. The bedding included a pillowcase from a Howard Johnson motel. Detectives zeroed in on a suspect, Willie Watts, who stayed at that hotel the night before.

At the time, detectives cleared Watts, who died in 2011, because he had an alibi for the morning of the killing. The coroner initially said Andrews’ wife died before 11:00 a.m. but eventually changed their estimate to later in the day. The detectives never reconsidered Watts as a suspect once he lost his alibi, nor did they disclose his existence to Andrews’ attorneys at the time of his original trial.

In 2019, attorneys from the Ohio Innocence Project learned about Watts in the handwritten notes kept by detectives. They also learned that witness statements at trial completely contradicted the initial version of events given to investigators. Their testimony was the only evidence against Andrews provided at trial.

“No physical evidence linked Isaiah Andrews to this crime,” Andrews’ attorneys from the Cleveland firm Friedman, Gilbert and Gerhardstein write in the complaint. “No blood was found in his apartment or his car, and nothing at the scene was connected to him.”

Andrews was freed from prison in 2020 and retried in 2021. At that trial, his attorneys also learned that detectives found a partial fingerprint near Regina Andrews’ body that did not match his fingerprints. The jury cleared Andrews after deliberating for about an hour.

“Andrews spent nearly forty-six years behind bars for a crime he did not commit,” the complaint said. “He entered prison in his thirties and exited as an 83-year-old man, wrongfully deprived of major portion of his adult life.”

The lawsuit alleges that it was the police department’s policy, at the time of Andrews’ conviction, to withhold evidence and violate suspects’ rights, citing a series of reports and lawsuits that laid bare Cleveland Division of Police (CDP) misconduct over the years.

“The Defendant City and the CDP also declined to implement any legitimate mechanism for oversight or punishment of officers who committed such misconduct, thereby leading officers to believe that they could violate citizens’ constitutional rights with impunity,” Andrews’ attorneys write.

Retired Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Ronald Adrine, who prosecuted Andrews while serving in the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office, confirmed in an affidavit that evidence from the Cleveland police potentially clearing Andrews in 1975 was not turned over to the prosecutor’s office.

Andrews is seeking an undisclosed amount in compensation from the city and Cleveland officers involved in his case.

An earlier version of this story said Andrews was 84 years old. He was 83.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media who focuses on criminal justice.