Tyrone Noling was found guilty of the April 1990 murders of Bearnhardt and Cora Hartig in Atwater, Ohio, and sentenced to death. After 17 years on death row, the Ohio Supreme Court has remanded his case to see whether DNA testing ought to be conducted on evidence found at the scene of the crime. Tyrone has always maintained his innocence, while prosecutors have hid evidence that points to alternative suspects in the case.
The Hartigs were shot dead in their home in the quiet northern town of Atwater, Ohio in 1990. Tyrone Noling and his co-defendants had robbed two elderly couples in a nearby town prior to the Hartig murders. Therefore, they became suspects in the crime. Upon investigation, the local sheriff decided their involvement in the crime “just didn’t fit” and they were quickly discarded from the case.
Two years after the murders, the Hartig case was still open. The Portage County Sheriff’s Office had not been able to determine who was behind the crime. Frustrated that such high-profile murders remained unsolved, the local Prosecutor’s Office took the case from the Sheriff and gave it to their own investigator, Ron Craig, with an order to “clear the case.”
While no physical evidence tied Tyrone Noling to the scene of the crime, he became Craig’s main suspect. Furthermore, Craig explained away the fact that:
(1) crime scene reports indicated the Hartigs knew their perpetrator and were seated at the kitchen table with their killer when they were shot, but no evidence suggested that Tyrone knew the Hartigs;
(2) no items were missing from the Hartigs home, meaning there as no robbery; and
(3) when Tyrone accidentally discharged his weapon during his 2nd robbery, the woman described Tyrone as a scared rabbit who immediately checked on her well-being.
Craig began by interrogating 18 year-old Tyrone’s co-defendants (who ranged from ages 14 to 20, the eldest being intellectually disabled) and feeding them lies about evidence he had against them. Threatened with prison and the death penalty, they fell in line and fingered Tyrone as the shooter. All three boys later recanted.
Tyrone’s original indictment was thrown out after he passed a polygraph test and one of his co-defendants recanted his statement. Victor Vigluicci, who became the Portage County Prosecutor in 1994 and remains in that post to this day, reinstated the charges after coming into office, and took Tyrone to trial in 1995.
Dr. Richard Ofshe, one of the nation’s preeminent false confession experts, has offered his opinion that “coercive interrogation tactics” were used against Tyrone’s co-defendants and that their confessions “possess the indicia of false confessions and for this reasons together with the circumstances under which they were elicited should be classified as unreliable.”
The Portage County Prosecutor’s Office hid exculpatory evidence from Tyrone’s attorneys at trial, including evidence that:
- A youth claimed his brother, who lived near the Hartigs, committed the murders; and, that man was not excluded as the source of genetic material found at the crime scene,
- An alternative suspect, who the Hartigs knew as their insurance agent, matched the description the neighbor gave of a man fleeing the area at around the time of the murders,
- A co-defendant’s car was searched at the time of his arrest and no weapon was discovered, refuting his claim of retrieving that weapon from his car after his release from jail,
- Grand jury testimony was elicited from a witness indicating the prosecutor’s investigator threatened to frame him for a crime if he didn’t aid his investigation.
An editorial by the Akron Beacon Journal explains that Tyrone has requested that cigarette butts found at the scene of the crime be tested for DNA, which he insists will exclude he and his co-defendants as contributors. A chemical analysis done by the sheriff at the time of the crime has already done so. Tyrone believes that the results of the testing may point to one of the original alternative suspects.
The Ohio Supreme Court remanded Tyrone’s case to the trial court on May 2, 2013 to consider whether to grant DNA testing in the case.
Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals “pause[d] for a moment to highlight [its] concern about Noling’s death sentence in light of questions raised regarding his prosecution” despite ultimately denying the federal habeas appeals because “[t]his worrisome scenario is not enough to create a constitutional claim cognizable under habeas and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.” Noling v. Bradshaw, 651 F.3d 573 (6th Cir. 2011).