By David Denson
In February 2000, Cleveland C. Bynum was arrested and charged with killing five people; Angela Wallace, Suzanne Wallace, Shelia Bartee, Anthony Jeffers and Elizabeth Daily-Ayers. The following year Bynum was later convicted of committing those crimes and received a 300-year sentence.
At his sentencing hearing, Bynum, addressing the victims’ families. He said, “If you really cared about your families, you would have made the police do their work. Now I’ve got to fight for my life for something I didn’t do.”
In making good on the promise to fight for his life Bynum has enlisted the support of family and friends, along with the Gary NAACP and the Indiana University McKinney School of Law Wrongful Conviction Clinic.
Two signed confessions along with the statement of a witness at the scene of the crimes was used to convict Bynum.
According to Bynum, he was forced to sign the confession after police threatened to harm his family. Around the time of Bynum’s arrest police did arrest his girlfriend and later released her. He said police coached and coerced confessions and repeatedly denied his request for an attorney and to make a phone call.
Since then, evidence has surfaced indicating that the crimes may have been committed by someone else. Also, the witness to the crime has since recanted his original testimony.
A now deceased Gary resident Gerald Mathews, aka Christopher Stokes, taped a video confession on a burner cell phone and wrote a confession letter admitting to the crimes Bynum was convicted of committing. Prior to his death, he gave the video and letter to Roger Shannon, who was someone he did handywork for briefly after he was released from prison in the summer of 2014.
Matthews, who had been in prison for dealing cocaine was shot and killed later that summer on August 18, 2014. In his confession he stated, “Hi, my name is Gerald Terrence Mathews. I’m doing this with the hope of making some of my wrongs right, if possible. Back in February of 2000, I committed a crime. I made a mistake I couldn’t fix, and now I have to clear my conscience. I couldn’t turn myself in because I didn’t want to go to prison. The worst part is I hurt people and their family, and I need forgiveness whenever I pass away. My understanding is that an innocent man is doing time I was supposed to do.”
On August 12, 2016, Fran Watson of the Wrongful Conviction Clinic was able to convince the Indiana Court of Appeals to grant permission to file a petition for post-conviction relief, clearing the way for a new trial or possible release for Bynum.
In the years since the Appellate Court’s ruling there has been an effort to rally the community behind the case. Local activist Markel Watkins at the behest of the family has been working to bring attention to the case. “I went to the three hearings they had in February and when I heard the professor from IU present the evidence and when Bynum took the stand, I was like, ‘this made no sense’,” said Watkins.
State Representative Ragen Hatcher who also attended the hearings said the after listening to the evidence this was a wrongful conviction. “As an advocate of those who have suffered from being convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, I feel this case clearly falls in that category. There are others who are faced with the same circumstances and those cases also need to be looked at,” said Hatcher.
Robert Bugg, chair of the Gary NAACP Legal Redress Investigation Committee said after reviewing the information relative to the case he believes that Bynum is innocent.
“I read some of the documents from the trial, the brief that was submitted for the post-relief conviction. My conclusion is that they should let him go because he is innocent,” said Buggs.
The Wrongful Conviction Clinic is headed by Fran Watson. Prior to taking on the Bynum case the Clinic received national attention for securing the release of two men from Gary who were serving time for the rape of a Lake County woman.
Through DNA evidence they were able to prove that Darryl Pinkins and Roosevelt Glenn were innocent of the crime they were charged with committing.