Her mother was murdered, her father convicted. Then, she learned what prosecutors kept secret.
Feb. 13, 2020
“Growing up, I often say that my sister and I had a charmed life,” said Sherry Parsons.
'A charmed life’
Her parents, James and Barbara, ran a successful garage and auto parts store in downtown Norwalk.
She said her parents worked hard to give her and her sister, Debra, everything they needed.
"We were a happy family,” she said, “until 1981, when everything changed. Suddenly."
On February 12, 1981, then 16-year-old Sherry arrived home at the family’s Sycamore Drive home after school, went to her mother’s bedroom, and found her mother covered in blood.
"I looked across the room, saw a bunch of blood, looked down, and there she was,” said Parsons.
Frantic, she ran to a neighbor’s house for help.
“I just said, 'Come with me,’” she said.
They raced back to Sherry’s home. The neighbor refused to let Sherry to go back inside her parents' room.
“I knew it wasn't good, I knew we were too late,” she said.
Barbara Parsons had been bludgeoned to death.
‘Nightmare number 2’
For years, the crime went unsolved.
Then, in 1993, there was an arrest.
The alleged killer was the last person Sherry ever suspected. Her own father.
“I couldn't believe my ears,” said Parsons.
Sherry didn't have any reason to believe it. Her father had fainted when he learned his wife died. He consented to be examined for any injuries at the hospital, since evidence showed his wife had fought back against her attacker. He had none. He also let police search his car.
“There would be no way he would put me through that and do that to my mother. No way,” she said.
So why was James Parsons arrested 12 years after the murder?
A new detective had taken over the case. He sent tools seized from Parsons’ auto body shop for testing at the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s forensic lab.
Earlier tests had found no conclusive evidence on two Craftsman breaker bars.
This time, the results concluded one of the tools was the murder weapon.
BCI forensic scientist Michele Yezzo, now retired, testified during Parsons' trial that she performed a blood pattern analysis which revealed an “n” and “s” imprinted in the blood left on Barbara’s bedsheets.
James Parsons was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life.
“I was just like, 'Oh my god. Now I've lost my dad,’” said Sherry. “Nightmare number two.”
Desperate to free her father, Sherry turned to the Ohio Innocence Project, which works to overturn wrongful convictions.
Their attorney, Donald Caster, made a shocking discovery while working on the case.
Huron County prosecutors had kept a secret. A secret so powerful it would change James Parsons’ fate.
Remember Michele Yezzo?
Turns out, she was put on administrative leave from her job at the state crime lab just before she testified at Parsons’ trial.
Yezzo had a long history of problem behavior at work, including making death threats against her colleagues.
Even more troubling were the concerns shared by her supervisor about her work.
In a memo, he wrote, "Her findings and conclusions regarding evidence may be suspect. She will stretch the truth to satisfy a department.”
However, that critical information was never shared with Parsons’ attorney.
“That would have been huge!” said Sherry, “because it would have thrown her whole testimony out and then they [prosecutors] would have been left with nothing.” She added, “I just couldn't believe that someone would do that. How could you put your head on a pillow every night knowing you wrecked people’s lives?”
A question of credibility
“It's critical the jury knows about that,” said Michael Benza, a professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law.
“If the jury doesn't know there's a reason to distrust that witness, they may end up with a false conviction,” he said. “And that's our biggest concern.”
In the 1963 case Brady v. Maryland, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled prosecutors must share any evidence with the defendant that could help their case, including details that cast doubt on the credibility of police officers or other law enforcement personnel involved in an investigation.
This potentially critical information compiled by prosecutors has become known as a Brady list.
While the Supreme Court ruling doesn't require prosecutors to create Brady lists, Benza said tracking personnel with credibility issues is widely considered a "best practice" in order to reduce the risk of wrongful convictions and convictions being overturned on appeal.
5 On Your Side Investigators decided to find if Ohio prosecutors keep track of this critical information.
In a first-of-its kind survey, we reached out to all 88 county prosecutors in the state to find out who currently has a Brady list.
Our investigation found the vast majority of Ohio counties do not have Brady lists.
Eighty percent, or 71 county prosecutors, currently have no names on a Brady list, including prosecutors in some of the state’s largest counties.
County prosecutors in Cuyahoga, Lucas, and Montgomery counties all said they do not have Brady lists.
Only 17 county prosecutors, including Summit County, do maintain Brady lists.
No bad apples?
Even Huron County, where James Parsons was convicted, fails to track whether any staff member's trustworthiness has been called into question.
James Sitterly, the county’s current prosecutor, ignored our repeated requests to schedule an on-camera interview.
No other Northeast Ohio prosecutors would talk to us either, except for Vic Vigluicci, Portage County’s longtime prosecuting attorney.
Like many of the county prosecutors who responded to our survey, Vigluicci said there is no one in his county who belongs on a Brady list.
“When there is the very rare bad apple, they're identified and removed,” he said. "I do keep in touch with my police chiefs and they know that I expect them to report to me anything that would be required to be disclosed on a Brady list."
But the honor system might not hold up.
“They may think that,” said Benza. “For a prosecutor to be able to say ‘we don't have anybody in law enforcement that deserves to be on that list' in a major metropolitan community, that's just not possible for them to know that,” he said.
Too little, too late
In 2016, after years of court battles, a judge threw out James Parsons’ murder conviction.
Sherry and her sister filed a civil lawsuit against Michele Yezzo, her supervisor, the City of Norwalk and the police detective in charge of her mother’s case. It is pending in federal court.
After fighting tirelessly to free her father, and finally succeeding, Sherry told News 5, “Unfortunately, it was short-lived.”
During his 23 years behind bars, dementia destroyed his mind.
“He didn't know he was free, and he didn't know he could leave,” she said.
Parsons died in February 2017, less than one year after he was released from prison.
“He had a good heart,” said Sherry. “It’s a shame it had to be wasted 23 years for a place he didn't belong.”
Her mother’s murder remains unsolved.
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