The dream of walking out of prison a free man after proving that he didn’t kill his parents is what kept Robert Caulley motivated for the past 17 years.
He was set free, but this wasn’t a case of a man being proved innocent by DNA testing. There was no celebration with a throng of family members outside a courthouse. There were no apologies by prosecutors. There will be no million-dollar settlements for wrongful conviction.
And Caulley, who still maintains his innocence, will always be branded a killer.
“This is the only outcome I could control,” Caulley told The Dispatch on Tuesday, his last day in the Marion Correctional Institution. “I just want to get on with my life.”
Rather than going through a second jury trial, Caulley was released after accepting a deal worked out by the Ohio public defender’s office and Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien. In November, Caulley entered an Alford plea to two counts of voluntary manslaughter with the understanding that he could apply for probation after six months.
In an Alford plea, a defendant doesn’t admit guilt but concedes that prosecutors have sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction.
Common Pleas Judge Charles A. Schneider approved Caulley’s request for so-called super-shock probation, a form of judicial release that was in effect when Caulley was indicted on murder charges in 1996. The judge placed Caulley on probation for three years.
Caulley, a resident of Grove City at the time of his arrest, plans to live in Johnstown in Licking County, but the judge agreed that his probation will be handled by Franklin County.
Caulley, 49, continues to say that his 1996 confession was coerced by investigators.
He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison in 1997 after a jury convicted him of murder in the death of his mother, Lois Caulley, and voluntary manslaughter in the death of his father, Charles Caulley. The couple, both in their 60s, were bludgeoned and stabbed in their Jackson Township home on Jan. 14, 1994.
A judge ruled in January 2012 that Caulley was entitled to a new trial because his defense attorney created a conflict of interest by having an affair with Caulley’s wife before, during and after the trial. That decision was upheld when the Franklin County Court of Appeals and the Ohio Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Taking the plea deal to avoid a second trial wasn’t easy for Caulley, he said.
His case was featured in TheDispatch series “Test of Convictions,” which was published in 2008 and exposed the many problems with the state’s DNA-testing system for inmates trying to prove their innocence.
As part of the project, the newspaper, along with the Ohio Innocence Project, selected 30 cases, including Caulley’s, and arranged for free DNA testing at a lab near Cincinnati.
So far, six men have been freed after serving more than 100 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Four others have been proven guilty.
In Caulley’s case, several rounds of testing were done on evidence collected from his parents’ home, but almost all produced inconclusive results.
One test, however, produced a partial DNA profile on a shotgun that defense attorneys say was used to beat Caulley’s parents. That profile doesn’t match Caulley’s, which he believes helps prove his innocence.
“I don’t look at my DNA testing as being inconclusive at all,” Caulley said. “I don’t think a jury would have looked at it that way. But I couldn’t take that chance with the criminal-justice system.”
O’Brien said the DNA results were “not relevant” and played no role in the plea deal. No evidence indicated that the shotgun was used in the slayings, he said.
He said the plea deal was made because of how much time had passed.
“The primary reason we agreed to a plea to the two manslaughters was the difficulty inherent in retrying a 17-year-old homicide case,” O’Brien said in an email to The Dispatch. “We consulted both the sheriff’s office and the victims’ daughter on the issue, and they concurred with that resolution.”
Caulley and his attorneys have criticized the lack of investigation into two alternative suspects.
“Robert Caulley has always maintained his innocence, DNA testing supports his innocence, and credible alternate suspects have been identified,” said Kim Rigby, Caulley’s lead attorney. “Six months ago, Bob decided to forgo another trial and instead enter an Alford plea so that his release from prison would be guaranteed.”
Caulley said he now will focus on reconnecting with his family. He will live with a sister and wants to spend time with his only son and his 2-year-old twin granddaughters.
He has a maintenance job in the farm industry waiting for him. He realizes it won’t be easy to break back into the engineering career he had before his conviction.
Caulley said he knows that some will question his mission to prove his innocence now that he agreed to the plea deal.
“People who will judge me on this aren’t in my shoes,” he said.
“I’ve struggled with what happened to my parents for 20 years, and making this decision was no different.”
By John Futty & Mike Wagner - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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