David Ayers walked out of the Cuyahoga County jail carrying a bag full of books and a few clothes from before his arrest. Eleven years later, they still fit, just barely.
At the doorway, in a corridor of the Justice Center, he hugged his niece, his nephews and his sister Valerie. He cried, his nerves on end. He was finally free.
For the first time in 4,199 days, he could walk outside and cross a street. He could eat lunch with his family, devour a corned beef sandwich, fries, Coke and dessert.
That night, Valerie moved her brother into her twin boys' bedroom. It was simple — a TV, bed, dresser and windows that looked out on her backyard and the house next door — but roomier than his prison cell, with its narrow space between the bunk bed and the toilet and sink.
Still, Ayers couldn't sleep. His mind would not let down its guard.
Weeks passed, yet Valerie noticed her brother spent long hours laying in bed with the lights and TV on, staring at the ceiling.
Outside the room, nothing fit anymore. Before prison, Ayers had spent nearly 20 years as a security guard — at a drugstore, an airport garage, an auto factory and public housing — but now he was 54, and his applications for jobs were unanswered.
Ayers' appearance hadn't changed much since his conviction in 2000. He'd added a little extra weight and longer hair coiled in tight locks. But his once-outgoing personality had darkened. He'd grown shy, skittish. Around his sisters, he'd cry easily one day, turn testy and angry another. When he addressed letters, he'd include his prison number, then catch himself.
In his nightmares, Ayers was still in prison. Awake, he feared everyone, even his family. "That's the feeling you get when you're behind bars," he says. "You've forever got to look over your shoulder, because someone's always going to try to do something to you."
In prison, Ayers had seen men beaten, their heads burst open in fights. He'd seen men extorted, stabbed and raped. As a gay man, Ayers was a constant target of harassment. He'd fought, too, to defend himself. Sometimes he won, sometimes not.
He had thought he would die in prison. The former Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority guard was serving a life sentence, convicted of the murder of Dorothy Brown, an elderly neighbor in his apartment tower on Cleveland's Shaker Boulevard — a murder he says he did not commit.
For a decade after his conviction, Ayers maintained his innocence. For most of those years, few listened. But in 2010, an appeals court ordered a new trial, ruling that police and prosecutors had misused a jailhouse informant who claimed Ayers had confessed. Eleven months later, the prosecutor dropped the charges and Ayers was freed.
Ayers and the Ohio Innocence Project maintain that DNA from the crime scene proves Ayers didn't kill Dorothy Brown. Police and prosecutors disagree. "Ayers remains to this day the primary suspect in Dorothy Brown's murder," a lawyer from the city of Cleveland wrote in a November court filing.
Once out of prison, Ayers sued the now-retired homicide detectives who arrested him, Michael Cipo and Denise Kovach, and claimed they had fabricated evidence. In March, they re-fought the legal battle over the death of Dorothy Brown in federal court. This time, jurors found that the detectives had violated Ayers' civil rights, awarding him $13.2 million.
The call came from the LaRonde Apartments at 2:44 p.m. on Dec. 17, 1999: a dead body in apartment 510.
EMS and the fire department arrived first at the LaRonde, a public housing tower on Cleveland's Shaker Boulevard. Police arrived at 3:13 p.m. In the apartment, an elderly woman, naked from the waist down, lay on her side in a puddle of blood from wounds on her head. The nearby wall was spattered with it, too.
Dorothy Brown had lived in the LaRonde for years. Though she was 76, her younger sister, Cleo McDowell, called her a "party girl." She drank every day — brandy, vodka or rum. She could be sharp-tongued and blunt, sometimes hurtful, quick to cuss someone out. But she could also be warm and generous, even toward strangers.
"She had a lot of young friends," her sister recalls. "She would give them money and feed them. She had a habit of taking everyone to be her friend." Brown was collecting her late husband's pension from his work at a Cadillac plant in Detroit, and she was known around the LaRonde for keeping cash in her apartment.
She'd survived lung cancer and an accident that injured her back, so she walked hunched over and needed a cane, walker or scooter. It was difficult for her to clean up after herself, and she'd gone from pack rat to hoarder. Papers, clothes, plastic bags, a can of Raid, a jar of jam, and a 2-liter Pepsi bottle were scattered around her recliner. The carpet was filthy. A pebbled black purse lay on the recliner, its contents spilled beside it.
Neighbors, mostly seniors, had gathered in the hallway. Among them, a younger man in a blue security guard uniform sobbed, bawled, fell quiet, then sobbed again. One officer thought his reaction seemed peculiar.
A 70-year-old named Sarah Harris had found Brown's door ajar and discovered her body. She said she and the security guard, David Ayers, had seen Brown alive at 2 a.m. the night before.
Ayers regained his composure, but his hands were shaking a bit. He was 42, 5 feet 10 inches tall, with gold front teeth from a roller-skating fall. He spoke in a soft, high-pitched voice with an Alabama accent. He worked security at CMHA complexes throughout Cleveland, lived at the LaRonde for discounted rent and informally helped out the residents there.
Ayers, too, told police he'd seen Brown the night before. One officer thought something about his story didn't match Harris' account.
Ayers said Brown called him at 2 a.m. and asked him to help her up from a fall. So Ayers went upstairs to Brown's apartment and picked her up. Around then, Harris arrived to help. Ayers said he put Brown back in her recliner, where she lit a cigarette and started watching TV. He got a key from a lockbox downstairs and came back alone. He looked in on Brown, locked her door and returned the key. Ayers added he had no reason to hurt Brown, that she was his friend.
A homicide detective looked in on the victim. He noted in his report: "Blunt-type weapon, confer with coroner, but may be consistent with a small hammer." It was 80 degrees inside Brown's apartment, and the floor was so cluttered that detectives couldn't tell whether the place had been ransacked. A sliding door led to a balcony divided by tall panels among three apartments. The front door showed no sign of forced entry.
On Christmas Day 1999, homicide detective Michael Cipo and his partner, Denise Kovach, were assigned to investigate Dorothy Brown's murder.
Cipo was an ex-Marine, a 26-year veteran of Cleveland police with a high rate of solved cases and several commendations in his file. He'd once caught a security guard who'd abducted and raped several women by spotting him outside a courtroom two weeks later.
Kovach had joined the force in 1980, tired of her low pay as a secretary. She had "a unique investigative style," a supervisor later wrote in a positive review. A fast talker, she got suspects talking too. Being a female cop helped her, she thought; men were more likely to confess to her. She prided herself on getting confessions in almost all her cases, and picking out a liar in two minutes and a killer in five.
The murder at the LaRonde looked like a robbery with a shallow pool of suspects. The six-story building had 56 apartments, but the residents were seniors or disabled; many weren't physically capable of committing the crime. Visitors had to be buzzed in at one of two entrances. During some hours, though not overnight, they had to pass a security guard in the lobby and sign in. That suggested the killer was someone Brown or another resident trusted: someone's friend, a relative or a CMHA employee.
In their first month on the case, Cipo and Kovach inquired about a drinking buddy of the victim's and the son of a LaRonde resident with a long criminal record. But in late January, they began to focus on Ayers. His one previous conviction was a negligent homicide misdemeanor from a fatal car crash. But a lieutenant with the CMHA police had interviewed Ayers about the murder and given him a voice stress test. The lieutenant said the results suggested Ayers had shown deception during the interview.
Ayers and Harris both claimed Brown had called them the night before she died. So Cipo and Kovach subpoenaed records of Brown's outgoing calls for that night and the next day. The phone company faxed its answer: no calls were found.
On the night of Feb. 3, 2000, two CMHA officers brought Ayers to the Justice Center for questioning. Ayers was nervous, tense and upset he was a suspect. Cipo and Kovach showed Ayers the fax and asked why he'd lied about Brown calling. He insisted she had. They asked why he'd failed the voice stress test. He'd been nervous, he said. They asked if he'd take a polygraph test. He said probably not.
A third person had reported getting a call from Brown that night: Her nephew had told a detective she'd called him at 2 a.m. to say she'd fallen. He'd told her to call Ayers.
Ayers knew that, so the detectives asked when he and the nephew had talked. The question seemed to shake Ayers. Long before Brown's death, he said at first, according to Kovach's report. Then he caught himself — no, right around her death. No, after.
"All the way through the interview," Kovach wrote, "it was certain Ayers was lying, either to cover for himself or someone else. Ayers was a very peculiar man."
The detectives subpoenaed phone records for Ayers, Harris and the nephew for Dec. 16 and 17. None showed a call from Brown. The detectives called Harris, who insisted Brown had called her. "We do not know if Harris is covering for [Ayers] or if due to her age and drinking, she is confused," Kovach reported.
But Ayers' records showed someone had called him the day of the murder, and they'd talked from 1:54 p.m. to 3 p.m.
The number led the police to Ayers' friend Ken Smith, who said he couldn't remember what he and Ayers had talked about on Dec. 17.
While talking to Smith, Kovach noticed something. "This male appeared very 'gay' like," she noted in her report. Smith was a hairdresser, she wrote, and "dressed and sat like a gay male." Ayers also seemed gay, she noted.
Kovach and Cipo's suspicions of Ayers grew. In late February, Kovach learned that CMHA detectives had watched a security tape of the LaRonde's lobby from the night before Brown's body was found. If Ayers was telling the truth about that night, he should've been on the tape twice, going to the lockbox to get a key and return it. A detective said Ayers never appeared on the tape. "Obviously, [Ayers] was lying again," Kovach wrote.
On March 14, 2000, CMHA Sgt. Chris Jakub picked Ayers up from his post at the King Kennedy Estates near Woodland Avenue. Cleveland homicide detectives wanted to talk to him again.
Jakub had supervised Ayers for five years. He thought he was a decent officer, good with the residents, never a complainer, always on time. "I wasn't sure if I'd count on him in a fight or not," Jakub recalls, "but he did his job."
The sergeant found it hard to believe Ayers had murdered Brown. "He just didn't come across as a person who would really get physical with anybody." Ayers seemed too soft. Jakub had never seen him display a strong temper. But he knew Ayers was the last person to see Brown alive. He thought Ayers might know something about the crime.
At police headquarters, Kovach told Jakub that Ayers had lied repeatedly, that the victim hadn't called him, that he wasn't on the lobby security tape, that he'd failed the voice stress test.
She and Cipo took Ayers into the homicide interview room. Jakub waited at a desk outside. After two hours, Kovach came out and handed Ayers' Smith & Wesson .38 revolver to Jakub. She and Cipo hadn't realized Ayers was armed.
Ayers probably wasn't leaving that night, she told Jakub. She went back in. About 45 minutes later, she and Cipo told Jakub that Ayers wanted to talk to him.
In the interview room, Ayers was shaking and crying. He told Jakub he was innocent, hadn't hurt Brown and didn't know why the phone calls weren't showing up.
"Sarge, how do I get out of here?" Jakub recalls Ayers asking. "They want me to say I hit her. If I say I hit her, will they let me go?' "
"Dave, if you say you hit her, you're not going anywhere," Jakub replied. If Ayers was covering for someone, Jakub said, he needed to give it up and not take the fall. Ayers swore he wasn't covering for anybody and hadn't killed Brown.
Kovach and Cipo came back in and arrested Ayers. They knew he'd killed Brown, they said, and just wanted to know why. Kovach said she'd try to help him: It could've been involuntary manslaughter, but they wouldn't know unless he talked. If he wouldn't, they would book him for aggravated murder.
Ayers handed Jakub his uniform coat and shirt, duty belt, pants belt and shoelaces. Cipo and Kovach took Ayers across the hall to the booking window.
That night, Jakub typed a two-page report.
"I tried to report as exactly as possible how Dave was and what he had said," Jakub recalls. "I wanted to really be sure that it kind of reflected that he was under duress. That he was really scared."
Kovach's half-page report included one line about talking to Ayers: "We interviewed [Ayers] and upon completion, he was booked for this homicide and conveyed to city jail."
In the three days after Ayers' arrest, Kovach and Cipo interviewed Ayers twice more. They had him retell his story about his last visits to Brown, then had Harris brought downtown to hear her version. Both now said they'd gone to Brown's apartment together. But Harris recalled Ayers locking Brown's door as they left. Ayers said he'd gone back a second time, alone, to lock the door.
Harris also hinted at a tension between Brown and Ayers: Brown made comments about him being a homosexual and wanted him to turn his life around, according to Cipo's report.
When the detectives talked to Ken Smith again, he, too, had heard that Brown scolded Ayers for being gay. Smith also provided a possible motive: Ayers was paying restitution for his role in the fatal car crash and needed money to reinstate his driver's license. But maybe most important, Smith now remembered his first conversation with Ayers about the murder.
"[Ayers] was talking very fast and excited, and told him about the victim being killed and what a shame it was because she was such a nice person," Cipo typed. According to Cipo's report, Smith said Ayers called him at about 2 p.m. on Dec. 17 — a half-hour before the body was found.
It was the last piece of evidence Kovach and Cipo needed. They visited Smith again, wrote up a statement and had him sign. The next day, Ayers was formally charged with aggravated murder.
Ayers' lead defense lawyer wanted all the evidence. It was August, and he still hadn't seen the videotapes. The prosecutors had told him there was no trace evidence from the crime scene — no hairs, fibers, blood, DNA, fingerprints, nothing. He wanted the detectives ordered to turn over all their information.
"I just want to make that clear," he told Judge Nancy Margaret Russo, "so we don't find out sometime around the third day of trial that a hair was found somewhere."
With an assurance from the prosecutor that the defense had everything, Russo denied the request. But over the next three months, as the trial neared, some of the defense's fears came true.
The coroner did have trace evidence, including pubic hairs. One had been found just inside the victim's mouth. Another was on her dentures, which had landed on the floor, likely flung there during the attack. A third was found on Brown's slipperlike purple footie.
Though tests didn't turn up DNA, the hairs from the mouth and dentures appeared similar under a microscope. The one from the footie seemed different. None were consistent with Brown's hair.
The judge ordered Ayers to submit hair samples, which weren't consistent with the crime scene hairs either.
In September, the prosecutor reported that the security tape from the LaRonde couldn't be viewed. Several camera feeds were mixed together, and a special device was needed to view them. CMHA detectives had run the tape in slow motion as it flicked from camera to camera and hadn't seen anyone.
Cipo and Kovach had tried to watch it on a normal VCR, but had only seen a blur. Yet Cipo had signed a four-page affidavit that listed the videotape as part of the evidence against Ayers.
When viewed correctly, the camera feeds showed Ayers making two trips through the lobby toward the lockbox and back. The first time, Harris came down with him and waited for him near the elevator. The second time, four minutes later, Ayers was alone.
The lawyers discussed a plea deal, but Ayers refused to plead guilty.
Then, at a hearing a week before the November trial, Cipo and Kovach testified that at the booking window, Ayers had asked, "If I say I hit her, can I go home?" It was similar to what Jakub recalled Ayers saying, but with one important difference: It didn't come with an assertion of innocence. The defense protested the late surprise. Russo ordered the entire police file turned over to the defense, including several reports they hadn't seen before.
The prosecutor had already given the defense the name of Darrin Ward, a son of a LaRonde tenant who'd been accused of breaking into residents' apartments. Cipo and Kovach had eliminated him as a suspect early on, in part because they deemed the woman alleging the break-ins an unreliable heavy drinker. Now the defense learned that Ward had a long rap sheet, including the molestation of a 13-year-old girl, which had led Kovach to call Ward "a primary suspect" in a January report.
Another name was new to the defense: Jerritt Ward, Darrin's brother. Ten days after Ayers' arrest, a woman had called Kovach and Cipo to say Jerritt Ward was in jail and wanted to talk to them about Brown's murder. But a cop at the jail told Kovach that Ward wanted to talk to his lawyer first. The detectives never followed up.
Despite the attempts at a plea deal in a case that showed signs of fraying, the two sides chose a jury just before Thanksgiving.
The next Monday, just before opening arguments, the prosecutor reported a bombshell. Over the holiday weekend, a jailhouse informant claimed David Ayers had confessed to him.
Donald Hutchinson, a 41-year-old homebuyer and associate minister at a church on Lee Road, was in the county jail awaiting charges that he'd stolen from a mortgage company and passed a bad check at a Dairy Mart in Highland Hills. He had three prior convictions, two for bad checks, one for receiving stolen property. He faced up to 4 1/2 years in prison.
Hutchinson had called the police from jail Saturday and asked for Cipo and Kovach, and they'd gone to see him. Hutchinson told them Ayers had talked about the case several times. At first Ayers maintained his innocence, but one day he broke down. According to Hutchinson, Ayers had gone upstairs to help Dorothy Brown, seen her money and gone back between 3 and 3:30 a.m. to steal it. Brown woke up, they started fighting, and Ayers hit her several times. "[Ayers] did not say what he hit the victim with, and Hutchinson did not ask," Kovach reported, "nor did he ask how much money he took."
Then, on Monday, Hutchinson's wife contacted them to say he had more information. The prosecutor sent Cipo and Kovach to bring Hutchinson from jail to court. Hutchinson told them he'd talked to Ayers again Saturday night, and Ayers had said he'd taken $700 from Brown's black leather pocketbook and killed her with a black clothes iron.
During the seven-day trial, the prosecution called 16 witnesses, including Ayers' friends and neighbors, and several police officers. Ayers was easy for them to identify: He wore a purple suit.
The trial turned on the testimonies of Hutchinson and Ken Smith. Hutchinson said that Ayers hit Brown with "a little, bitty black iron." Brown's sister said she owned two irons, but the family only found one in the apartment after her death. Though a coroner said Brown's wounds suggested a round-ended weapon, such as a hammer, he believed an iron could've caused them.
Smith proved to be a squirrely witness. Twice, he said he and Ayers talked about the murder before 3 p.m. the day Brown died — but other times, he said the call could've been at night. Smith even hinted that Cipo and Kovach had pressured him, claiming they told him they could get a recording of the call from the phone company and listen to it. Cipo and Kovach both denied it.
Kovach retold the story of Ayers asking: "If I say I hit her, can I go home?" The defense wanted to know why she hadn't written it down. "I'd never forget it, so I didn't type it," she said. Jakub wasn't called to testify.
As for the pubic hair in Brown's mouth, the coroner said there was no sign Brown had been sexually assaulted. Oral and vaginal swabs from the autopsy had turned up negative for semen, and a forensic scientist said the hair was likely found just inside her mouth, where an examiner would've noticed it. One of the three pubic hairs from the scene appeared not to match the other two, he noted, and the denture had also picked up a dog hair. The prosecutor argued the hairs had come from the filthy carpet. "With one of her last gasps for breath," he suggested in his closing arguments, "she inhaled a hair from the floor."
Ayers' lawyers called no witnesses.
In closing, they argued the prosecution had presented evidence of "abysmal quality," and that the police had decided Ayers was guilty based on "misinformation," from the videotapes to the "voodoo science" of the phone records. Testimony now showed four people claimed Brown called them the night before she died. The defense called Hutchinson a "con man" and hinted that Hutchinson could have noticed the black purse if he'd been shown the crime scene photos. As for the hair evidence? "I wonder what the probabilities are," the defense argued, "that of those three pubic hairs, two of them turn out to be from the same person, and one of them lands on the mouth and one of them lands on the dentures."
The jury deliberated for 2 1/2 days and on Friday afternoon, they sent the judge a note. "We are equally divided on the verdict," it read, "and do not anticipate the possibility of a unanimous decision." The judge told them to keep deliberating. On Monday afternoon, after about a day's worth of further debate, they reached a verdict: guilty.
When Judge Russo read the verdict, Ayers gasped. His knees buckled. An attorney propped him up so he wouldn't fall. As the judge adjourned court, Ayers felt panicked. He stood at the defense table for several seconds, sobbing.
That same day, on the recommendation of the prosecutor's office, Russo dismissed both cases against Hutchinson.
Ayers declined to speak at his sentencing. "He maintains, as he has consistently, that he's not guilty," his lawyer told the judge.
Russo was unconvinced. "You were assigned to protect this woman," she told Ayers. "That trust was used to brutally kill her." She sentenced Ayers to 40 years to life in prison, the maximum.
At the Mansfield Correctional Institution, he quickly gave up hope of ever getting out. Violence and threats surrounded him.
Pictures of family consoled him: his mother and father, sisters, nieces and nephews. When his sisters visited, they talked about life outside, not prison. He called his mother every other day. She couldn't bear to visit. "Mom didn't want to see me like that, locked behind bars," he says. "[She] was so sensitive, it'd break her heart."
Inside a locked box, he kept a few possessions: Luther Vandross and Patti LaBelle CDs, and true crime books. His own conviction didn't dampen his attraction to a good detective mystery. While other prisoners read newspapers, magazines and contraband issues of Playboy and Hustler, Ayers devoured Green River, Running Red and other books by crime writer Ann Rule.
"I'm a true crime fanatic," he says. "I like the plots, whodunit — it's interesting to learn why they did what they did." CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and CSI: Miami became his favorite TV dramas — stories that bore little resemblance to his case. He'd been convicted with circumstantial evidence, not forensics.
In 2001, Ayers' appeal was assigned to a three-judge panel, which included the appeals court's most liberal judge, Anne Kilbane. In her three years on the appeals bench, Kilbane had penned several opinions so provocative that The Plain Dealer said local lawyers collected them "as if they were baseball trading cards." In the case of a young woman caught with a backpack full of psychedelic mushrooms, Kilbane had challenged a police estimate that the stash was worth $85,000 by citing a price guide from the magazine High Times.
In September 2002, the appeals court upheld Ayers' conviction. Judge Michael J. Corrigan, a former prosecutor, wrote that he was "troubled" by the belated reveals of new evidence just before trial, but that Smith's and Hutchinson's testimony helped to justify the verdict. "The details provided by Hutchinson ... seemingly only could have been known by the assailant," Corrigan wrote. (The appeals court ordered Ayers resentenced, so Russo cut his sentence to 20 to life.)
Kilbane penned a 13,600-word dissent. She argued Ayers deserved a new trial. "The combination of circumstances that cast suspicion on this verdict is almost ridiculously long," she wrote. She said the pubic hair in Brown's mouth was evidence of sexual assault. She rejected Hutchinson's testimony against Ayers as "vague and inconsistent," noting six ways his story changed between the police report and the trial.
Kilbane repeatedly called Kovach and Cipo "dishonest." She described the detectives' late revelation of Ayers' "If I say I hit her" comment as "willful misconduct." Smith's written statement was "unreliable," she said, and "taken under suspicious circumstances."
Hutchinson's story of Ayers' jailhouse confession, Kilbane claimed, "draws heavily from police reports that were not available to Ayers." Hutchinson claimed Ayers had stolen $700 from Brown; in the early police reports from the LaRonde, a friend of hers said she'd gotten exactly $700 from the bank soon before she was killed. To Kilbane, that was too good a coincidence — not a sign Hutchinson was right, but that he could've gotten the info from the cops.
Kilbane also noticed something peculiar, an error that repeated throughout the evidence. It concerned the all-important conversation between Smith and Ayers on the day of the murder: Who had called whom? According to Cipo's report from March, the phone records said Ayers called Smith, and Smith said so too. Smith's written statement also said Ayers called Smith (though farther down, Smith added he couldn't really remember who called). And according to Hutchinson, Ayers said he called Smith.
But they were all wrong. The phone records showed Smith had called Ayers. "At some point," Kilbane wrote, "one must question why each of these witnesses made the same mistake made by detective Cipo."
It was Kilbane's most collectible opinion. Years after her death in 2004, it became especially valuable to other judges who considered Ayers' case. "I still believe it important," reads her last line, "that someone, somewhere, reopen investigation into this crime."
Ayers screamed into the phone. It was 2003, and his sister had just told him that their mother, Johnnie, was dead.
"Stop lying!" he yelled. "Mom is not gone!"
He broke down, crying, yelling, until a guard took him back to his cell.
He didn't go to his mother's funeral. He wanted to remember her like she was, he says, and he didn't want to be there in shackles.
For eight years, lawyers in the Cuyahoga County Public Defender office worked to free Ayers, but got nowhere. They challenged Ayers' conviction in federal court and tried to get the hair from the crime scene retested in a state court. Maybe, they hoped, improved DNA technology could turn up a profile that might match someone in the national DNA database of convicted felons. But after bouncing around the state court system, to the appeals court, the Ohio Supreme Court and back again, their petition died out.
In February 2008, the Ohio Innocence Project filed a second DNA petition for Ayers under a new Ohio law that made testing more available to inmates. It got rejected, too. But in November 2009, the appeals court ordered the testing to proceed. Then, in October 2010, Ayers won a second victory. A panel of federal appeals court judges in Cincinnati ruled 3-0 that Cipo and Kovach had misused Hutchinson in a way that violated Ayers' rights. Once a defendant has a lawyer, police can't use an informant to question him without an attorney present, the court explained. By sending Hutchinson back into the same jail pod, where he could talk with Ayers again, Cipo and Kovach had broken that rule and made it possible for Hutchinson to get answers he didn't have the first time: the murder weapon, how much money was stolen.
The opinion quoted several pages of Kilbane's 2002 dissent. "Hutchinson testified regarding statements and factual errors that could have only come from interactions with police," Judge Richard Griffin wrote. "At a minimum, detectives Cipo and Kovach shared information in Ayers' case with Hutchinson." The court ordered Ayers retried or released.
The prosecutors and public defender prepared for a second trial. In August 2011, the Cuyahoga County crime lab retested the evidence. A fleshy root on the pubic hair found in Brown's mouth tested positive for male DNA.
The DNA didn't match Ayers. But a lab worker had accidentally contaminated the sample with her own DNA. It couldn't be uploaded to the national DNA database to look for a match.
Three weeks later, at the prosecutor's request, the judge dismissed the charges against Ayers and freed him.
Six months after his release, Ayers sued Kovach and Cipo, claiming the detectives concocted Smith's statement and Hutchinson's jailhouse confession story.
Kovach was defiant, chatty and feisty on the witness stand in Cleveland's federal courthouse this March. The now-retired detective sparred with Ayers' lawyer when he suggested Hutchinson's story of the black purse, $700 and black iron could have come from her and Cipo.
"Donald Hutchinson knew more about the homicide than we did," she said. "We didn't know how much money was stolen. We didn't know what was used to kill her. ... He told us all that information." But she acknowledged that witnesses told her Brown used a black iron as a doorstop and that it was missing from the apartment.
Kovach even explained how a pubic hair could've gotten into Brown's mouth.
"Very easily," she said. "When you touch your hand and you touch a table or a floor or anything, and there's hairs all over. And in her place, there were hairs all over. All she has to do is touch that table and then touch her face."
Ayers' lawyer asked Kovach why she'd left key details, such as the alibi of early suspect Darrin Ward, out of her reports. She said she was too busy to write everything down and sometimes left out details such as opinions about a witness' credibility if she thought a defense lawyer might use them against the prosecution.
Gregg McCrary, a former FBI agent who has trained homicide detectives, testified as an expert witness for Ayers. Investigators need to document everything they learn, McCrary testified, including facts that challenge what they're thinking. They also need to take care not to accidentally "contaminate" an interview. "You don't suggest it was a red car or [that] a telephone call came in at a particular time," he said.
"Are pubic hairs of significant forensic interest?" Ayers' lawyer asked.
"Very much so," McCrary said. "Even though we shed pubic hairs, they're not likely to be left around. They are more likely to be found in, say, underwear."
Ayers took the stand on the first day. He said he'd never confessed to Hutchinson, but they'd talked about his case. Hutchinson had claimed his uncle was a detective who didn't like white people and would help get Cipo and Kovach off Ayers' back. Then he asked Ayers to "play a game" and try to guess the murder weapon. Scared and wanting help, Ayers played along.
"He started off talking about a stick, a bat, and then I said, 'Maybe, OK, an iron,' " Ayers said. "I never gave Mr. Hutchinson no description of no iron."
Ayers retold his story of the last time he saw Brown: She called him and Harris for help, so they went to the LaRonde's ground floor to get the key and then went up to help her. The details of his account had changed. In 1999 and 2000, Ayers had told detectives he couldn't lock Brown's door after helping her, so he got the key and went back to her apartment alone. The new version better fit Harris' testimony that she saw Ayers lock the door.
Kovach had testified that Ayers' friend Smith was scared to talk when she first questioned him, relieved and forthcoming once Ayers was in jail. Smith told the story differently. He said he'd never been sure when he and Ayers had talked about Brown's death, and that Cipo and Kovach had suggested a time and put it in a prepared statement.
"What did they say would happen if you didn't want to sign the statement?" Ayers' lawyer asked.
"I could wait, and they would hold me until their boss got here, and he could charge me with perjury," Smith replied.
Cipo, who retired from the police force in 2003 after developing leukemia, said his memory had suffered because of his medical treatments. He often couldn't recall details.
"You can't say whether you threatened Ken Smith with perjury if he didn't cooperate with you, right?" Ayers' lawyer asked.
"I don't believe we did, no," Cipo replied. "I personally wouldn't have done that."
Cipo said he didn't hide or fabricate any evidence or induce witnesses to do so. He insisted that Smith said he and Ayers had talked about Brown's murder the day it happened.
Cipo admitted to knowing he wasn't supposed to talk to Hutchinson a second time, but he insisted he and Kovach hadn't suggested the details Hutchinson offered. "We gave him no information," he said. Neither side called Hutchinson to testify.
To cap off the case, Ayers' lawyer called Shaku Teas, a forensic pathologist who had examined the autopsy photos. "It's obvious to me that the instrument used was a household hammer," she said. "I don't see any pattern that fits a configuration of even an antique iron."
The jury delivered its verdict the next day: Kovach and Cipo had violated Ayers' right to a fair trial and maliciously prosecuted him. They awarded him $13,210,000 in compensatory damages, more than $1 million for every year he was imprisoned.
Kovach can't stop talking about the verdict. "We were in shock when they came back for Ayers and not us," she says. "With all the stuff we told them?"
Kovach, 64, sits in her condo, surrounded by antique lamps and taxidermy — bear, deer and buffalo heads — from secondhand stores. She's got a vast amount of blond hair, which looks like a wig, pulled up in pigtails.
"We didn't do anything wrong," she says. She can't believe the jury thought she and her partner fed Hutchinson info. "Jurors are so stupid," she says. The phone records, she says, were more reliable than the LaRonde residents. "Most of those people, they were old, they were senile, they were drunks." She says she only wrote that Ayers and Smith appeared gay to remind her who they were among the many homicides she worked on.
Dismissing the pubic hair in Brown's mouth is "so easy," Kovach says. "This is one thing black guys do a lot, we used to laugh about it all the time — they stick their hands in their pants, they're always playing with their thing. Then they pull their hands out, they touch her glass, or they touch something in her apartment."
Cipo died of cancer July 9. He was buried in his Marine uniform with a Marine honor guard. "He was a very straight, very honest, very good detective," Kovach says.
Ayers may have to wait a long time for his $13.2 million, and he may never get it all. The city of Cleveland, which defended Kovach and Cipo at trial, has filed an appeal on their behalf. "The city believes the verdict in this civil suit is contrary to the law and the evidence presented during the trial," says city hall spokeswoman Maureen Harper.
Ayers' lawyers say the city is responsible for the entire $13.2 million under state law. The city says its contract with the police union limits its payment in the case to $1 million. Kovach says she's going to file for bankruptcy. Ayers may have to collect from Cipo's estate.
Hutchinson won't talk about whether Ayers confessed to him or whether the police fed him information.
"That's all said and done and over with," Hutchinson says. "You understand what the court said and why he got released. I don't have anything to do with that anymore. It wasn't my fault that he got released."
Cleo McDowell, Brown's sister, says she hasn't heard from prosecutors or police since Ayers' release. She says she was never certain of Ayers' guilt and doesn't know what to think now. "I feel that not enough was done. I feel they took the first person they could and found him guilty," she says. "And now, with possible new evidence, what are they doing about that?"
A DNA expert hired by Ayers' lawyers has created a partial DNA profile of the man whose hair was found in Dorothy Brown's mouth. The profile was deduced by subtracting the markers that came from Brown and the lab worker.
In response to Cleveland Magazine's questions about the case, Cuyahoga County's prosecutor and medical examiner agreed to a search of DNA databases. "If there's another suspect out there that law enforcement ought to be looking at, we want to know that," says Joe Frolik, spokesman for the prosecutor's office. But in early August, the FBI denied permission, saying the partial profile did not fit its search criteria.
Ayers has not been officially exonerated. The murder charges were dismissed without prejudice, meaning prosecutors made no guarantees they wouldn't charge him again. "I hope they get the son of a bitch that did this and clear my name," he says. "Dorothy deserves justice."
With most of the evidence used against Ayers deeply disputed, a few mysteries remain. In his account of Dec. 17, 1999, he says Brown called for help right as he got home from work. But the videotapes appeared to show him coming home more than an hour before getting the key. And why is it he used to say he went back to Brown's apartment alone, but not now?
"When you're under pressure, you forget what's really happened," he says. "It must've been out of nervousness."
Ayers recently went to an Innocence Project conference for its freed clients in Charlotte, N.C., where he attended seminars on how DNA works and how to wisely invest money from a large settlement. He lives in an apartment in East Cleveland and studies at Bryant & Stratton College. This August, he was due to receive an associate degree in criminal justice. He's going on to get his bachelor's degree.
He hopes to get a job as a crime scene investigator. "I don't want what happened to me to happen to anyone else," he says.