Man tries to rebuild life after serving time for crime he says he didn’t commit

Jason Ellison was released from prison Oct. 7 after serving five years for sexual battery. New evidence cast doubt on Ellison’s conviction and a Douglas County judge released him last week.

Mike Kelly, an attorney with the Kansas City, Mo.-based law firm, Morrow, Willnauer, Kolsterman and Church, worked for two years to obtain Jason Ellison's release from prison. Kelly was assigned the case as an intern with the Kansas University School of Law's Paul E. Wilson Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies in Fall 2009.

Less than a week after being released from prison, Jason Ellison is rebuilding his life.

The 28-year-old bought some new clothes, obtained a new ID, visited some favorite restaurants and is letting his mom spoil him with home-cooked meals at her Kansas City, Kan., home where Ellison is living.

“Feels good. Hard to get used to,” said Ellison, who was released from custody by a Douglas County judge Oct. 7 after spending five years in prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit. “Just taking it one day at a time.”

Ellison was convicted in Douglas County in 2006 of aggravated sexual battery based on sexual assault accusations from his ex-girlfriend’s sister. New testimonial evidence was presented that casts doubt on the validity of the victim’s allegations, earning Ellison a new trial last week. But the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office will not be refiling charges, leaving Ellison a free man.

There are two contrasting possibilities in Ellison’s case: he’s either an innocent man unjustly convicted, or a sex offender who got out of prison after serving only a fraction of his sentence.

Sometimes, in the criminal justice system, nobody wins.

“Really, we end up with justice unserved,” said District Attorney Charles Branson. “It’s an unsatisfying outcome for everyone.”

‘Just wanted to give up’

It’s been a long legal road for Ellison and his family following the 2006 conviction. At times, Ellison, who grew up in Lawrence, said it was difficult to imagine he’d be released short of serving the 23-year sentence that was handed down.

“For a while there, I was doubtful,” said Ellison, whose initial appeals were denied. “And just wanting to give up.”

But frequent visits and support from his family, including his sister, his father, mother and stepfather, gave Ellison hope.

“If it wasn’t for family, I’d have gone crazy,” he said.

And eventually Ellison found a legal ally in a persistent intern at the Kansas University School of Law’s Paul E. Wilson Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies.

Ellison wrote a letter to the Project for Innocence, and the case was assigned to intern and law school student Mike Kelly. Handed the file for his first case, Kelly said he wasn’t sure what to expect, and it took time before he could form an opinion on Ellison’s guilt or innocence.

“It’s hard to tell from a piece of paper,” Kelly said.

Ellison didn’t look like the most sympathetic client. He had a long rap sheet and spent several years in prison for a variety of crimes, including a sex crime. Behind bars again, Ellison began racking up numerous disciplinary actions.

After visiting Ellison in prison and meeting his family, Kelly, now a lawyer with a Kansas City, Mo., law firm, became convinced Ellison was innocent, and he’s spent the last two years dedicated to freeing him.

Kelly and Project for Innocence lawyers batted around a variety of legal strategies to help Ellison and were left with having to find new evidence. Kelly started knocking on doors, re-interviewing witnesses and talking to anyone who knew Ellison or the victim. Kelly’s work turned up several witnesses, who submitted affidavits to the court detailing statements the victim made denying Ellison assaulted her.

But many of those witnesses had extensive criminal records — two of the four who submitted statements are in prison.

“Nobody was clean,” Kelly said.

Despite questions about the credibility of the witnesses, Douglas County District Judge Robert Fairchild, following a July hearing, granted Ellison a new trial.

Ellison said without Kelly’s hard work, he’d still be in prison.

“It was nice to know that there were people out there who knew and believed I was innocent,” said Ellison, who was never again cited for a disciplinary action once Kelly started visiting. He said Kelly “never gave up working on my case.”

Not a clean break

Ellison’s release isn’t a clean break from the sexual assault allegations. In contrast to some other sexual assault conviction reversals, Ellison wasn’t exonerated, and Branson, the district attorney who oversaw the trial, said his office stands by the original prosecution.

“We remain confident that the original trial resulted in the right outcome, an outcome that was confirmed by the court of appeals,” said Branson following Ellison’s Oct. 7 release.

Branson said his office’s decision not to retry Ellison was based on a variety of factors, including the wishes of the victim, whom prosecutors contacted to discuss the case.

“She doesn’t want to go forward with this,” said Branson, adding that the case was frustrating from a justice standpoint.

“It’s bitter for both sides,” Branson said.

The case highlighted an issue faced by prosecutors across the country who prosecute sexual assault cases lacking physical evidence. In Ellison’s case, the largest piece of evidence was victim testimony.

“There’s nothing more difficult than screening a ‘he said, she said’ case,” said Scott Burns, National District Attorneys Association executive director.

Society wants aggressive prosecutions for sex crimes, and sometimes that means relying on one person’s word against another’s, Burns said.

Burns, who could not speak specifically about Ellison’s case, said such cases are a difficult task for any prosecutor — a task made even more difficult when cases across the country pop up in which a victim lies about an assault. Such cases have the potential to silence other victims who are worried people won’t believe them.

“There’s a chilling effect,” Burns said.

Moving forward

Ellison — with a calm and reserved manner — said his time in prison matured him.

“It definitely made me grow up overnight,” he said. His mother, Jill Hutchinson, nods her head, affirming her son’s personal assessment. She talked about the growth she’s seen in her son.

The family is committed to providing Ellison with a stable environment, Hutchinson said, away from negative influences — influences that Ellison admits he knows well.

Before his incarceration in 2006, Ellison spent four years in prison for convictions of assault, theft, burglary and indecent liberties with a child between the ages of 14 and 16.

Then, Ellison said, he ran with the wrong crowd and was more concerned with cars and stereos than building a stable life.

“I just wasn’t making the best choices,” he said. “I needed to change that.”

Since getting out, Ellison said he’s avoided some of his old friends, instead catching up on time with family.

He’s started job hunting and mentions possible job leads he’s been hearing about. He’d like to work on cars, but said he won’t be picky.

“Anything that gets a paycheck,” he said.

Ellison said that 10 years from now he hopes he’s left his criminal past and the recent sexual assault case far behind.

“I’ll own my own place, nice job, decent car, in a committed relationship,” said Ellison about his goals. “Be positive and stay out of trouble.”