Elwood Jones, subject of 'Accused' podcast, awaits word on new trial request

After nearly 30 years awaiting execution on Ohio's death row, Elwood Jones might soon learn whether he'll get a chance to shed the label "convicted killer" bestowed upon him by a jury who'd found him guilty in the 1994 beating death of a woman in Blue Ash.

A Hamilton County Circuit Court judge is set to decide whether Jones deserves a new trial in the death of Rhoda Nathan, a New Jersey grandmother killed in her hotel room after coming to the region for her best friend's grandson's bar mitzvah. The ruling follows a dramatic and rare three-day hearing last month, punctuated by court filings posted last week.

Jones' case was the focus of the fourth season of Accused, a true-crime podcast produced by The Cincinnati Enquirer and USA Today. The podcast highlighted inaccuracies presented in the original trial, as well as investigative paths Blue Ash investigators and Hamilton County prosecutors did not pursue.

Jones has maintained his innocence from the start, but police and prosecutors have long argued that circumstantial evidence pointing to him is solid.

"The evidence of Jones' guilt remains as compelling today as it was 25 years ago," prosecutors wrote in a post-hearing closing argument given to Judge Wende Cross on Sept. 16. The argument was submitted by Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, as well as Philip Cummings and Seth Tieger, the two assistant prosecuting attorneys who'd argued the case before Cross in person.

Elwood Jones looks at his loved ones who are sitting in the gallery after entering Judge Wende Cross's courtroom at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Wednesday, August 24, 2022. Jones is currently on Ohio's death row but has been granted a hearing for attorneys to present their case on why Jones should have a chance at a new trial.
Elwood Jones looks at his loved ones who are sitting in the gallery after entering Judge Wende Cross's courtroom at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Wednesday, August 24, 2022. Jones is currently on Ohio's death row but has been granted a hearing for attorneys to present their case on why Jones should have a chance at a new trial.

Whether Cross agrees with prosecutors' assessment of the evidence is the expected focus of her upcoming ruling. If she agrees, Jones would most likely return to the Chillicothe prison. If Cross disagrees, it could mean that she vacates Jones' conviction and orders what Jones has long sought: a new trial.

Cross already has filed one ruling in favor of Jones this month. She agreed that hairs collected from the crime scene should be tested for DNA. It's unclear what that testing could uncover. Because the crime scene was a hotel room, and because multiple people trampled through the room as efforts were made to save Nathan's life, the forensic evidence gathered there has long been considered of questionable value.

Cross oversaw an unusual three-day hearing in late August that had been granted to Jones' lawyers, who contend that Hamilton County prosecutors withheld potentially exculpatory evidence from Jones' original defense team before his murder trial in 1995. To underscore the number of documents not shared with the defense, Jones' team − led by lawyers Jay Clark and David Hine, working pro bono − filled seven thick binders with more than 4,000 pages that hadn't originally been turned over.

"I will tell you that I will work diligently to come to a decision as soon as practical," Cross said from the bench at the hearing's end. "I have a lot to review, and I am going to review everything I need to review."

Prosecutors in 1995 told jurors that Jones killed Nathan, a 67-year-old grandmother, during a robbery of her Embassy Suites hotel room. That would mean that Nathan was killed during the commission of another felony, which in Ohio made Jones eligible for the death penalty after he was convicted.

Jurors sentenced him to die in early 1996, and he's been on death row ever since. His execution date has been repeatedly postponed because of his appeals and, more recently, the COVID pandemic.

But Jones has insisted from the beginning that he wasn't the killer, and over the years, some of the state's most touted evidence has come under scrutiny. For example, prosecutors pointed to an infection in Jones' dominant hand as proof he'd attacked Nathan. The infection included a bacteria called Eikenella corrodens. Hand surgeon John McDonough testified at trial that the bacteria is an extremely rare mouth organism. He said he'd only seen three such infections in his career, and each had been the result of a so-called "fight bite," a closed-fist punch to someone else's mouth.

That testimony and the resulting conviction helped land the case on the TV show "Forensic Files," which lauded the role science played in getting a cold-blooded killer off the streets. In the August court hearing, however, prosecutors acknowledged that some of McDonough's original testimony had been flawed. During cross-examination of infectious disease expert Dr. Steven Burdette, Cummings said he understood that Eikenella isn't as rare as McDonough had testified.

"I'm aware of all the inaccuracies that you highlighted in his testimony, and I defer to you on that obviously. ... Eikenella's normal habitat is in the mouth, but it's throughout the (gastrointestinal) tract, it's in the upper respiratory tract, et cetera, and it can be in infections throughout the body, correct?"

Burdette replied: "I've seen it literally from the foot all the way up to the brain."

Burdette further said, and Cummings agreed, that McDonough had been wrong when he testified that Eikenella is more often found in dental plaque rather than saliva.

This distinction matters because McDonough's testimony to jurors was that Jones' explanation of his infection was impossible. Jones had said he'd fallen on metal stairs while taking trash to a dumpster. That trash included partially eaten food cleared from banquet tables. Jones also said he'd licked the wound reflexively by putting it to his mouth after he hurt it.

McDonough said Jones couldn't have given himself the infection by licking the wound. The doctor testified that Jones had to have come into contact with someone else's dental plaque, and the most logical way for that to happen would have been for Jones to have punched Nathan in the mouth so hard that her tooth cut his hand and deposited the bacteria deeply into the cut near his finger joint.

Burdette disagreed, testifying: "Have I seen Eikenella come from a punch? I have, but most of the times when I see it is from other ways of exposure, typically somebody coming in contact with the saliva."

Dr. Steven Burdette, an infectious disease expert, answers questions from attorney, Jay Clark, part of Elwood Jones’ defense team, in Judge Wende Cross’s courtroom at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Thursday, August 25, 2022. Jones is currently on Ohio’s death row but has been granted a hearing for attorneys to present their case on why Jones should have a chance at a new trial.
Dr. Steven Burdette, an infectious disease expert, answers questions from attorney, Jay Clark, part of Elwood Jones’ defense team, in Judge Wende Cross’s courtroom at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Thursday, August 25, 2022. Jones is currently on Ohio’s death row but has been granted a hearing for attorneys to present their case on why Jones should have a chance at a new trial.

On top of that, Burdette said McDonough was "factually wrong" when he categorized the infection as being primarily an Eikenella infection anyway.

"This was primarily a Group A strep infection and the Eikenella was just what we call a co-pathogen," Burdette said.

Among the other arguments Jones' lawyers presented to Cross through a series of witnesses and sworn affidavits, they claimed police and prosecutors:

• Ignored tips pointing away from Jones as the killer, then assured jurors that all tips had been pursued;

• Failed to disclose that Nathan had an active and highly contagious Hepatitis B infection that likely would have spread to Jones if he had punched her in the mouth in the way prosecutors theorized;

• Failed to disclose investigations into other hotel workers with violent criminal pasts, including two workers who were given lie-detector tests before Jones was arrested and whose alibis were disputed by others on staff;

• Misled jurors by claiming that no one in the hotel had reported seeing any suspicious behavior around the time of Nathan's death, despite having reports to the contrary filed by both hotel guests and other employees.

"That was an abject lie," Hine said of the latter issue.

Defense attorney David Hine questions an expert during testimony during Elwood Jones hearing on Thursday, August 25, 2022. Jones is currently on Ohio's death row but has been granted a hearing for attorneys to present their case on why Jones should have a chance at a new trial.
Defense attorney David Hine questions an expert during testimony during Elwood Jones hearing on Thursday, August 25, 2022. Jones is currently on Ohio's death row but has been granted a hearing for attorneys to present their case on why Jones should have a chance at a new trial.

After the murder, police reached out to hotel guests and received hundreds of pages of questionnaire responses that were never given to Jones' lawyers. One of those questionnaires was submitted by a hotel guest named Robyn Williams, whose name has since changed to Robyn Budd. Budd testified during the August hearing that she'd seen a tall, lanky white man sprinting from the Embassy Suites around after leaving through a side door that had been propped open with a yellow plastic drinking cup. She said this happened about 7:50 a.m. Nathan's body was discovered about 10 minutes later.

Budd testified that the incident had struck her as odd to begin with, but when she learned later that day that a woman had been murdered in the hotel, she tracked down an officer in person to tell him what she'd seen. She told another investigator the same story a few weeks later in a follow-up interview over the phone.

"And then I remember another phone call calling to tell me that they did not need me any longer," Budd said. "Somebody had been charged and this was pretty much it, it was over, and they wouldn't need me to testify or do anything."

Jones' original defense team was never told about Budd's conversations with police. Nor did they learn of other hotel guests who had described "suspicious men lurking about the hotel who were trying to get into their rooms, using keys that they weren't supposed to have, and even reporting that they had specific information about breaches of security that pertained to Mrs. Nathan," Hine said in his closing statement to Cross last month.

The last point was in reference a handwritten questionnaire response from Gerald Cantor, who'd come to Blue Ash for the same bar mitzvah. Cantor and his wife Dorothy didn't know Nathan before the weekend event but traveled with her from the Cincinnati airport to the hotel the night before her death.

Gerald Cantor wrote to police that he'd witnessed "three breaches of normal, appropriate hotel security on Friday afternoon." Nathan was killed about 8 a.m. Saturday morning. Police records suggest that no one from the Blue Ash Police Department or the county prosecutor's office reached out to Cantor to ask what he'd seen. Cantor has since died. In an interview for Accused, his widow said that she couldn't remember nearly three decades later what the purported security breaches had been.

Hine told Cross that the original trial was "absolutely despicable and tragic," resulting in Jones spending nearly 10,000 days in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

"I don't know how you conclude anything other than the fact that Elwood Jones is only the second victim of the murder of Rhoda Nathan," Hine said.

State prosecutors argued that most of the issues raised in Jones' recent court hearing don't matter because, as lawyer Phil Cummings said, "we're not here to relitigate the case."

Cummings agreed that police and prosecutors didn't hand over thousands of investigative documents before the original trial, but he said that these documents have been provided subsequently over the years and ruled on previously in both state and federal court.

"All of this, this mountain of evidence, has been reviewed by the district court, it's been reviewed by the Sixth Circuit (Court of Appeals), and they've rejected these claims," Cummings said.

"They said, 'You know what, this is not material evidence. It's not surprising that people are going to come in and out of a hotel. People exiting a hotel is not that big a deal.' The bottom line is the federal court looked at all of that and they said, 'There's nothing here. There's nothing that would've changed the outcome.'"

Cummings said the ruling from Cross needed to be focused squarely on a claim by one woman, Delores Suggs, who said that before Jones' trial began in 1995, she had called Blue Ash police to tell them that she'd met a woman in the county jail who said her husband had killed a woman in the Embassy Suites and framed a Black man for the crime. Suggs said the officer with whom she spoke dismissed her concern, telling her they already knew who the killer was in the case.

Suggs testified in the August hearing that she'd felt dismissed when she reported the alternate suspect to police. She'd told a church friend at the time, she said, but no one else, that a woman named Linda Reed told her that her husband, Earl Reed, was the real killer in the case.

Suggs said that after her call to police, she dropped the matter. "I just left it alone. It was a closed case," she said.

She said her memory about the case was jogged in 2016 when she watched a TV program about wrongful convictions and talked with her adult daughter, Tierria Suggs, about the information she'd tried to give police decades earlier. Tierria Suggs testified that after hearing her mother's story, she tracked down Jones and sent him a message via JPay, a prison email system.

Jones' lawyers presented this as proof that the state violated a rule established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1963 case Brady v. Maryland, which requires that prosecutors turn over to defense lawyers potentially exculpatory evidence favorable to their client.

Tieger, who cross-examined Delores Suggs in the hearing, highlighted gaps in her memory as he confused her with questions about why she was in jail in 1995 and how soon after her release she'd called Blue Ash police. Ultimately, he and Cummings argued that Suggs wasn't able to prove she'd even made the call at all, much less that she'd made it before Jones' trial.

They also dismissed Suggs' testimony as inadmissible because it relayed "double-hearsay" passed on by Linda Reed, a woman who struggled with mental health issues before her death and whose husband had been abusive. Both Linda and Earl Reed have been dead for years.

"Ms. Suggs' testimony on the issue was imprecise, contradictory and ultimately of no value," the state wrote in its post-hearing argument. "As she conceded, she just does not know when she made the call. Just as wind and gravity shift desert sand rendering any specific area unlocatable, time and confusion diminished Ms. Suggs' memory rendering any specific time of contact indeterminable."

Because of Suggs' confusion, prosecutors wrote, Jones wasn't able to prove that the state knew of Linda Reed's claim about her husband before his trial, which meant he didn't prove that the state violated Brady's rules of disclosure.

"There's no basis for a new trial," Cummings told Cross. "The evidence against Mr. Jones was overwhelming and solid and strong."

It's unclear when Cross is likely to make a ruling on the matter. If she agrees with Jones' lawyers that he should be granted a new trial, his existing conviction would be vacated as though it never happened. Even that, though, would likely be far from the end of Jones' legal matters. The state would likely appeal the ruling and could re-file charges if they lost that appeal.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: 'Accused' podcast subject Elwood Jones awaits new trial ruling