In this Sept. 21, 1998, file photo, former Akron, Ohio, police captain Douglas Prade testifies during his aggravated murder trial in Akron. / Lew Stamp, Akron Beacon Journal, via AP
CINCINNATI (AP) - A former Ohio police captain who has spent nearly 15 years in prison in his ex-wife's killing was exonerated Tuesday by a judge who said that new DNA test results proved his innocence and that no reasonable jury would have found him guilty if that evidence had been available at trial.
Doug Prade should be set free because the new DNA results are "clear and convincing," said Summit County Court of Common Pleas Judge Judy Hunter in Akron.
Hunter could have ordered a new trial for the 66-year-old Prade, or found that the DNA results weren't strong enough and allowed his conviction and sentence of life in prison to stand.
Prosecutors can appeal the ruling. If her ruling is struck down, Hunter ordered that Prade be given a new trial.
Margo Prade, a 41-year-old Akron doctor, was found shot dead in her minivan outside her office on Nov. 26, 1997. There were no witnesses and no fingerprints, and no gun ever was found.
Prade, a 30-year veteran of the Akron police department, was convicted of aggravated murder, largely because of a bite mark found on Margo Prade's body that one expert for the prosecution testified at the 1998 trial matched Doug Prade.
The new DNA test found that male DNA found around the bite mark is not Doug Prade's.
The test - conducted for free by the private DNA Diagnostics Center in Fairfield, Ohio, at the request of the Cincinnati-based Ohio Innocence Project - wasn't widely available at the time of Prade's trial.
While Prade's attorneys said the new test proved Prade's innocence, prosecutors had argued that the male DNA could have gotten on Margo Prade's lab coat before or after she was killed. Further testing on other parts of the coat didn't turn up any male DNA.
Hunter ruled Tuesday that the remaining evidence in the case would not be enough to convict Prade of murder, saying that much of it was "tenuous at best," that the accuracy of two witnesses' testimony was questionable and testimony about the Prades' contentious divorce "is entirely circumstantial and insufficient by itself."
In an interview with the Associated Press in August, Prade said that he hoped the results would be enough to free him.
"For them to find what I had known all that time was no surprise to me," he said in a phone interview from a central Ohio prison. "I guess it was an epiphany to everyone else - 'Hey, this guy was telling the truth.'"
In the years following Prade's trial, bite-mark comparisons have come under fire as sham science. At least 11 prisoners convicted of rape or murder based largely on bite mark-comparisons were exonerated - eight of them with DNA evidence. At least five other men were proved innocent as they sat in prison awaiting trials.
Prade's attorneys and prosecutors squared off at a four-day hearing in October and renewed their arguments in lengthy court documents in December.
"Prade has provided 'clear and convincing' evidence of his innocence, as well as that, had the new DNA and other evidence been introduced at trial, there would have been reasonable doubt such that no reasonable jury would have convicted," Prade's attorneys wrote.
Prosecutor Sherri Walsh argued that nothing Prade has presented is clear or convincing and that "Prade is where the jury felt he belongs."
"To contend ... that not one reasonable fact-finder would find him guilty of aggravated murder is truly to enter the realm of the absurd," she wrote. "At most, there is conflicting, credible expert opinion. That is a draw. Consequently, the status quo must stand."
Walsh also emphasized circumstantial evidence in the case, saying that it was well-known the Prades were going through a contentious divorce, that Prade had tapped her phone hundreds of times a year before the killing and that he never signed a divorce decree, which would stopped him from collecting a $75,000 life insurance policy.
Prade's attorneys said their client used more than half the policy to pay of Margo Prade's own debts and still had more than a fourth of it when he was arrested. They also say a contentious divorce and the phone tapping don't prove anything.
Prade told the AP in August that spending more than 14 years in prison, mostly amid the general population, has been "hell on Earth."
"I mean, it's one thing if someone is guilty of something to be here, but to be not guilty and here is even worse," he said.
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