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Death row survivor: ‘A miracle happened to me’

After 20 years in prison — 17 on Ohio’s death row — 90 minutes is all that stood between Derrick Jamison and death.

He was that close to being killed, silenced by lethal injection, and his body, like the truth, buried forever.

Jamison, a Cincinnati native who lives in Middletown, would have been remembered for his horrendous crime, and as another Ohio death row inmate killed since the state instituted the death penalty in 1999.

Instead, Jamison, who turns 54 this month, was cleared of robbing a Cincinnati bar and killing the bartender after additional evidence was brought forward. In 2005, he became the ninth Ohio death row inmate exonerated and the 119th in the United States.

Jamison’s odyssey began more than 30 years ago when Gary Mitchell, a bartender at the Central Bar in downtown Cincinnati, was brutally beaten to death during a robbery on Aug. 1, 1984. Eyewitnesses told police different accounts of the events, and during the police investigation, a Pony shoe print was discovered on top of the bar.

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Then, two months later, Jamison was arrested for robbing a Gold Star Chili restaurant, and he was wearing the same style gym shoes that produced the print at the bar. Charles Howell was later arrested as an accomplice in the murder, and he told police he and Jamison had robbed the bar and Jamison had attacked the bartender. In exchange for his testimony, Howell received a reduced sentence.

During the investigation, the descriptions by witnesses of those who committed the crimes differed from Jamison’s appearance. Eventually, James Suggs, an eyewitness to the robbery and murder, was shown photos of suspects by police, and he identified two men, neither of which was Jamison.

Jamison believes that up to 35 pieces of evidence that proved his innocence were suppressed by the Cincinnati Police Department and never given to the prosecutors. That evidence never was provided to the defense.

Jamison was convicted of the murder, and the judge followed the jury’s recommendation and sentenced him to death in 1985.

A federal judge ordered a new trial for Jamison in 2000, holding that Hamilton County Prosecutors withheld key evidence. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision in 2002. In February 2005, Ohio Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Niehaus dismissed all the charges against Jamison. Two federal courts ruled the prosecution’s actions denied him a fair trial.

He was sentenced to death on Oct. 25, 1985, and 20 years to the day later, he was released from prison, a free man. He recently moved from his hometown to a Middletown home. He calls himself “a Middie.” He’s receiving financial and case management assistance from Freedom Community Development Corp., a Middletown non-profit agency, and hopes to speak to youth and church groups about his prison experience. He’s also writing a book and hopes to find part-time employment.

An ambitious itinerary for a guy some wanted dead by now.

Scheduled to be executed six times, but as each date neared, Jamison received a stay from the governor. The last one came 90 minutes before he was set to die. A few days before his last execution date, guards and prison officials met with Jamison and his attorney to review his last rights: where he wanted his dead body sent, and the menu for his last meal. He wanted a cake with a file hidden inside.

“Death row humor,” is what he called his request.

Then, just as quickly, Jamison got quiet. The smile left his face. “There’s nothing funny about that. A lot of my friends didn’t get stays.”

Jamison, obviously, is against the death penalty, much like members of MADD are against drinking and driving. Instead, he thinks those convicted of serious crimes should be sentenced to life without parole. While Jamison was incarcerated, he said many of his prison friends were killed, and he wonders how many were innocent.

“You can’t go get ‘em out of the grave and say, ‘Oops. My bad. Sorry,’” he said. “In my eyes, no man has the right to say who lives and who dies. Jesus Christ was executed by the state. Why would we keep killing people if we know this about Jesus Christ?”

When Jamison was released from prison, he was the 119th death row inmate exonerated in the United States. Since 1973, 150 death row inmates have been freed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. There are 3,035 death row inmates in the United States, and 144 in Ohio, the seventh most in the country. California leads with 745. There are 32 states with the death penalty and Ohio has executed 53 people.

As Jamison made the slow walk from his cell to the front gate, where a nephew awaited, he passed out all of his possessions he had accumulated over the two decades to other prisoners. He wanted no reminders of his 20 years in prison. He remembers changing clothes, right there in the prison parking lot. His first stop as a free man was at Waffle House, what he now called his favorite restaurant.

“Oct. 25, my worst day, became my best day on this earth,” he said. “I walked away from death row a free man, an innocent man.”

He compared his first day of freedom to Christmas Eve. “You know that feeling because you guys were kids. I was so excited. It felt like…amazing. If I could bottle up that feeling and sell it, I’d be a billionaire.”

Then he added: “It’s like a miracle happened to me. I watched so many of those guys get murdered.”

The world, of course, changed dramatically while he was incarcerated. Jamison, a huge Cincinnati Reds baseball fan, said he attended games with his father at Crosley Field and Riverfront Stadium. He remembered the Reds back-to-back World Series titles in 1975-76, but he was incarcerated when the Reds swept the Oakland A’s in the 1990 World Series. During the interview, Jamison wore a Reds hat, and two more sat on top of his TV.

He remembered the first time he saw someone using an ear piece to talk on their cell phone.

“It looked like they were talking to themselves,” he said with a smile.

He missed more serious events, too. He wasn’t there when his father, Joseph, died in 1987 or when his mother, Essie, died 10 years later. They died not knowing their son as a free man. He said his parents died broken hearted and from the “agony and pain” of having a son on death row.

But wasn’t he bitter about spending 20 years — nearly 40 percent of his life — imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit?

“No,” he said without hesitation. “I’ve seen what anger does. I got nothing to be angry about, and I got everything to be happy about.”

He had plenty of time to contemplate his beliefs.

“I always had my faith and that really is what got me through,” he said.

Jamison argues the cost of the death penalty far outweighs incarceration. It has been reported that the cost to a state is three times as much to prosecute a death penalty case compared to cases where the sentence is life in prison without possibility of parole. Jamison said that money could be spent more wisely and without the possibility of killing an innocent inmate.

Starting with Wilford Berry, who waived his right to various post-trial proceedings in 1999, Ohio has executed 53 people. Jamison said the day Berry was killed feels “like yesterday.”

“It was like a dark cloud came over the State of Ohio,” he said. “They started killing my friends one after another. It was horrible. A lot of those guys I knew as teenagers.” He said the inmates to his left and right were 18 and 19 years old when they were incarcerated.

Now, when Jamison meets people and tells them he’s been exonerated from death row, “it blows them away.”

When asked about the death penalty, Jamison said: “You can’t fight evil with evil. They have done killed a lot of innocent people over the years.”

Since 1973, 150 people have been exonerated in the U.S.

“That’s 150 reasons we shouldn’t have it,” he said about the death penalty.

Jamison said he enjoys talking to youth about his legal journey and his years on death row. He said few people get the opportunity to talk to a death row survivor.

His message is simple and comes from the heart: “This can happen to anybody. I was out there on the streets. I did a lot of things wrong when I was a kid. I tell them the things not to do and the consequences behind them.”

Katrina Wilson, CEO of Freedom Community Development Corp., has worked closely with Jamison. She has learned more from him, she said, than he has learned from her. She now understands there’s a stigma attached to former prisoners. They are the last to get hired, the first blamed for crimes. But, as she said, if they’re going to live in your community, you better arm them with services they need.

Wilson said the Middletown community is “tremendously blessed” to have Jamison living in the city, but at the same time, they didn’t want his residence made public. She called him loving, kind and generous.

“He lights up a room,” she said. “God has a plan and purpose for Derrick’s life. I can’t imagine not having a Derrick Jamison in the world.”

Life can change in the blink of an eye, or in Jamison’s case, the matter of 90 minutes.

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