My hubby was jailed for murdering Mum – how a ciggie proved his innocence
When her husband was convicted of her mum’s murder, Melinda Dawson, 55, sought out the truth
Standing in the kitchen, I took a big sip of coffee. It was early on a Sunday morning and I’d spent all night nursing my son Brandon, 12, who’d been feeling sick.
As my husband Clarence walked into the room, we suddenly heard loud voices and the sound of hurried footsteps coming from outside.
‘Go take a look,’ I urged him, feeling worried.
While Clarence headed to the driveway, I craned my neck to look out the window.
Shocked, I realised a dozen police officers had swarmed our front yard.
I opened the door to a booming voice shouting questions.
‘Is your name Melinda? Is your mother’s name Judy?’
‘What’s going on? Is she okay?’ I pleaded.
The officer gave me a look of pity.
‘I’m so sorry, she’s been murdered,’ he said.
I let out a blood-curdling scream. I’d only spoken to my beautiful mother, Judy, the day before. She was 58.
Falling to my knees, my vision became clouded with hot tears.
But out of the corner of my eye, I saw something that just didn’t make sense.
A police officer was putting handcuffs on my husband.
‘What are you doing? Clarence?’ I stammered.
I barely had a moment to register what was going on before he was shoved into the police car and driven away.
This can’t be happening, I thought, shocked.
Another officer put his hand on my shoulder as he tried to comfort me.
‘What happened to my mum?’ I howled.
I was told that the night before, my poor mother had been sleeping on the living room couch when she was savagely raped, beaten and strangled to death.
Mum had been babysitting my little niece, Brooke, aged only six. She’d been raped too and left for dead.
After Brooke regained consciousness in the morning, she left a harrowing voicemail for a family friend.
‘My grandma died and I need somebody to get my mum for me,’ she said. ‘I’m all alone. Somebody killed my grandma.’
By some miracle, she then managed to crawl next door and beg for help. Astonishingly, the neighbour made the poor child wait for 45 minutes while they finished breakfast, before taking Brooke to her mum, April. When speaking to the police, Brooke told officers the intruder ‘looked like uncle Clarence’.
That was all the evidence they needed to swoop.
Heading back into the house, I called my uncle.
‘Has Mum really gone?’ I cried.
I couldn’t believe anyone would hurt my sweet mother.
In the background, my aunt was yelling about Clarence.
‘Don’t you dare bring him to our house,’ she warned.
I felt numb – surely they didn’t believe my husband was a murderer?
A friend came over to look after Brandon and my other son, also called Clarence, 15, so I could go to the police station.
Sitting in an interrogation room, the officers blasted me with questions.
‘Do you know where your husband was last night?’ one asked me.
I knew exactly where Clarence was at the time of the murder – home with me.
‘There’s no way he was at my mum’s house,’ I said.
‘How do you know?’ the officer asked, looking unconvinced.
‘Because I was up all night with a sick child,’ I shot back.
The theory that Clarence could have driven 56km to kill my mother, rape my niece and make it home without me noticing was simply impossible.
As well as trying to process the grief of losing Mum, I now had another battle to fight.
‘He’s absolutely innocent,’ I insisted.
That day, despite his alibi, Clarence was charged with murder. I was horrified.
My husband, the father of my children – and the man I had been married to for 18 years – was not a murderer.
The next 12 months were agonising. Clarence was kept in custody the entire time.
When he appeared in court in 1999, he of course denied everything and the trial began.
The main evidence was Brooke’s testimony saying the man looked like uncle Clarence.
After three weeks, when the jury filed back in to deliver their verdict, the men looked at him with hatred and the women were crying. I knew what was coming...
He was found guilty of murder, attempted murder, two counts of rape and assault, and sentenced to two terms of life-imprisonment.
‘They believe the little girl,’ Clarence’s attorney shrugged.
It was like I was trapped in a living nightmare.
While I felt frustrated, I couldn’t imagine how Clarence was feeling.
My seething anger and unspeakable grief made for a lethal mix.
I just knew my husband was innocent, and I needed to find my mother’s killer and the man who raped my niece. A murderer was on the loose and I was afraid he was coming for me.
My boys were desperate to see their dad back home too.
At my mum’s gravestone, I made a vow.
‘I promise to find who did this,’ I told her.
The rest of my family, scarred by the crime, refused to talk to me.
They truly believed Clarence was her killer.
As the months and years flew by, I slowly became estranged from my family.
But I tried to visit Clarence once a month.
And determined, I started watching every crime show.
I also contacted a private investigator, Martin Yant, who specialised in wrongful convictions.
It was Martin who convinced me to try and reconcile with my family.
‘Go visit your sister,’ he urged.
Three years after the trial, I turned up on April’s doorstep. Opening the door, she hugged me.
‘I’ve missed you,’ I laughed, through tears.
Brooke, who was now nine, had started to remember bits and pieces of that awful night.
She told the family she’d just said the man looked like her uncle and at the time she was too young to correct the grown-ups’ mistake.
‘Uncle Clarence has brown
eyes and the bad man had blue eyes,’ she said.
Working with Martin, we whittled down other potential suspects for the murder – rapists who were out on parole, locals with criminal records and violent neighbours.
I had transformed from a wife and a mother to a full-blown detective.
Travelling to my mum’s neighbourhood, I went to bars where known criminals would frequent, desperate to coax confessions from them.
I pulled out strands of hair without them noticing and seized discarded beer bottles.
Raising money online, I paid $25,000 for DNA testing to be done on evidence left at the crime scene.
The results came back with a DNA match for an unknown male.
It wasn’t Clarence! A glimmer of hope returned to me.
He had been languishing behind bars for six years now, resigned to the fact he would die in prison.
But I had other plans. Searching old newspapers for clues and names, I came across a woman called
Tonia Brasiel. She was Mum’s neighbour who had made my blood-stained and battered niece wait 45 minutes on her front porch before she got help.
I discovered Tonia’s husband, a man named
Earl Mann, was a convicted sexual predator charged with raping children.
And he’d been released from prison the same month my mum was killed.
Horrified, I realised I had my prime suspect.
Weeks later, by a stroke of luck, I learned Earl was back behind bars and being transferred to the same prison as Clarence.
So, I hatched a plan.
‘Does he smoke?’ I asked Clarence.
‘Yes,’ he replied, confused. ‘When he discards the butt, keep it for me,’ I said.
One month later, Clarence carefully watched Earl as he puffed on a cigarette, before scooping the butt out of the ashtray.
I couldn’t visit Clarence for two weeks, so he kept the tiny piece of evidence hidden between the pages of a Bible in his cell.
Finally, I had what I needed. The DNA was a perfect match for the profile left at the crime scene.
He’s the killer, I thought, relieved but exhausted.
The day after Clarence got the sample, Earl attacked another inmate with a lock inside of a sock and was moved to another prison.
If Clarence hadn’t got that cigarette butt when he did, he would never have had the chance to do it again.
My attorney submitted the evidence and we prepared ourselves for another trial.
But a few months later, all charges against Clarence were dropped. They finally admitted he was innocent.
On a cold night, I drove two hours to get to the prison where Clarence was being held.
He walked into the lobby, looking puzzled.
‘You’re coming home!’ I announced, feeling almost giddy with excitement.
‘Oh my God… really?’ he said in disbelief.
That day, more than seven years after he’d walked in, handcuffed and in chains, Clarence finally walked out of prison, a free man.
My mother’s true killer, Earl Mann, 35, was formally charged with murdering Mum and the attempted murder and rape of Brooke.
In 2008, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 55 years behind bars.
As soon as justice was served, my walls came down. I could finally grieve for my mother – a gentle and beautiful woman who was taken from this world far too soon.
After Clarence walked free, our marriage broke down, but we remained friends.
I had spent so long fighting to prove his innocence that I lost the ability to be his wife.
I’ve since wed a lovely man, Patrick, 49, who I adore, and Clarence is happily remarried too.
Now, 20 years on, I work in the US to stop executions.
As a public speaker and victim advocate, I help others to fight for justice and to raise awareness of wrongful convictions.
I have never stopped thinking about my mum.
Since day one, it has always been about finding justice for her.
I miss her so much it hurts, but I am so glad I fought hard – both to find her killer and to free an innocent man.
I promised Mum I’d find her killer Little Brookeat the time of the attackA murderer was on the loose and I was afraid he was coming for me
My mum Judy and meBrooke with Clarence
Clarence and me on the day he was released from jail