In a 9-2 vote, the Ohio Parole Board has recommended against a pardon for former bus driver Nancy Smith in the controversial Head Start child molestation case.
The final decision on whether Smith wins a pardon belongs to Gov. John Kasich, whose office received the Parole Board recommendation Thursday. The report was made public Friday.
Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said that the governor’s office has followed the Head Start case closely and had a representative attend a January hearing before the Parole Board. But he said Kasich is under no obligation to take any action on a request for executive clemency, and added that he could not comment on whether the governor would do anything with Smith’s pardon request.
“We don’t comment on these things publicly unless a decision is received,” Nichols said.
Smith said she wasn’t surprised by the recommendation, which came from a Parole Board that includes people who rejected her 2007 request for parole because she was in “denial” after she refused to admit her guilt.
“The only people who are in denial are the people who keep denying the truth of this case,” Smith said Friday.
Both Smith and her codefendant, Joseph Allen, have long maintained their innocence in the face of allegations they molested 4- and 5-year-old children on Smith’s Head Start bus route in the early 1990s.
“It’s a travesty and injustice what these people have done to me,” Smith said.
Allen is due back in court in October and has his own clemency request pending before the Parole Board.
The pair was convicted in 1994 and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, but were freed by Lorain County Judge James Burge in 2009 after a technicality on the sentencing entries allowed him to revisit the cases.
Although Burge acquitted the pair, the Ohio Supreme Court later ruled that he didn’t have to power to set aside the jury’s guilty verdicts.
Smith, 56, reached a deal in June with prosecutors in which she entered a plea to reduced charges and was sentenced to 12 years in prison and given credit for the nearly 15 years she spent behind bars. She wasn’t required to register as a sex offender as part of that bargain and continues to maintain she didn’t commit a crime.
The June agreement removed the possibility that Kasich would commute Smith’s sentence to time served, something county Prosecutor Dennis Will said he supported. Will opposed a full pardon and said that was the argument his office made to the Parole Board.
“Everybody went down and had their say and they rendered their decision,” he said.
Smith and her lawyers had argued that the case against her was rife with problems, particularly when it came to interviews of the alleged victims, which experts have said were tainted by suggestive interview techniques and questionable lineups.
The two Parole Board members who voted in favor of recommending a pardon for Smith shared those concerns, according to the report.
“There is a strong indication that the testimony of the children/witnesses was contaminated and the applicant was weakly and/or wrongly linked to Joseph Allen, whom law enforcement believed to be a pedophile. These issues and others call into question the applicant’s involvement and conviction,” the report said.
The majority of the board, however, concluded that Smith had violated her position of trust and that there was a possibility that she would reoffend.
“The arguments presented were not persuasive enough to accept her contention that she is innocent of the crimes for which she was convicted,” the report said.
Smith said she took offense to the Parole Board’s suggestion that she was guilty and might commit another sex crime.
“I’m not a sex offender, so they never have to worry about me reoffending because I never offended in the first place,” she said.
Burge, whose decision to leave Smith and Allen free is the subject of an Ohio Supreme Court Office of Disciplinary Counsel investigation, said he was “stunned” by the Parole Board’s decision. Burge was among those who traveled to Columbus in January and made an emotional plea in favor of Smith being granted a pardon.
“I think the governor should overrule them and clear the name of an innocent woman,” he said Friday.
Even if Kasich rejects Smith’s current pardon bid, she said Friday that she would file another one.
“I’ve only wanted my name cleared,” Smith said. “That’s all I ever wanted.”
Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.