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Arts & Culture

Criminal: Melinda and Clarence

A drawing of a cigarrette butt.
Julienne Alexander
Melinda Dawson gathered stray cigarrette butts seeking DNA that might exonerate her husband.

On the last Criminal podcast, we heard from Melinda Dawson. She learned as a girl that her parents had secretly purchased her from a man called Dr. Hicks at his Georgia clinic. Dawson and her mother, Judy, became outspoken about the realities of life as a so-called "Hicks Baby."

But their stories weren't always well received. At the end of the last podcast, Dawson's adoptive mother was brutally murdered, her niece assaulted, and Dawson's husband Clarence Elkins was arrested for the crime. This week, the podcast continues with the second act.

Criminal Host Phoebe Judge reported the case against Elkins was problematic: There was no DNA evidence placing him at the crime scene, and the niece—a child at the time—only recalled that her assailant looked a little like her uncle. But Elkins was nevertheless convicted and put in jail.

Judge says Dawson's family had frozen her out and prosecutors refused to reopen the case, so Dawson took it upon herself to prove Elkins' innocence. She found a list of potential suspects who looked somewhat like her husband. She began following them around and secretly collecting their DNA by gathering discarded beer bottles, cigarette butts. Once, at a strip club, Dawson flirted with a suspect to get one of his hairs.

"Yes, I went up to him and we were talking and I just kind of nonchalantly put my hand on the back of his head and kind of raked my fingers down a little bit and got his hair," Dawson told Judge.

She narrowed the list down to one suspect, a former neighbor with a record of assaulting children. The suspect, Earl Mann, was in prison with Elkins. Elkins managed to secure one of Mann's cigarette butts and send it to his lawyer before Mann was transferred to another prison.

Mann's DNA turned out to match traces from the crime scene where Dawson's mother and niece were attacked. The Ohio Innocence Project took on Elkins' case, and the prosecution dropped all charges. Elkins was exonerated. Mann was convicted, and is still serving time.

"The biggest one-ton brick came off of me immediately," Dawson recalled. "It was like I could breathe again. I cried. And I was so happy for Clarence, and I was so happy for my sons. You know, this was so hard on them."

Melinda Dawson is now an outspoken activist against wrongful convictions. She has begun looking for her biological mother.

The Criminal podcast is on a live tour of 15 cities in the U.S. and Canada. Several are sold out. Criminal is recorded in the studios of WUNC.

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