Charges dropped against man cleared by DNA after 30 years behind bars

Atlanta criminal defense attorney Don Samuel (left) with Ron Jacobsen, who was released from custody in November after serving 30 years in prison for a crime he says he didn't commit. (Handout)

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Atlanta criminal defense attorney Don Samuel (left) with Ron Jacobsen, who was released from custody in November after serving 30 years in prison for a crime he says he didn't commit. (Handout)

State prosecutors have decided they will not retry Ron Jacobsen for raping a woman in Newton County, four years after DNA tests strongly indicated he did not commit the crime and 31 years after he was sent to prison for it.

“They did the right thing,” Jacobsen, 61, said Wednesday. “It should have happened earlier. But it’s here. It’s done. I’m relieved.”

Jacobsen was an auto mechanic living in Decatur when he was charged with raping and assaulting a 21-year-old Golden Pantry store clerk on Jan. 6, 1990. He maintained his innocence and had alibi witnesses who testified he was with them in Tennessee at the time. But he was convicted at trial and sentenced to life in prison.

The victim had briefly dated Jacobsen a few months before the attack. Although she initially told police the man who attacked her was a stranger, she later identified Jacobsen as her assailant. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution does not disclose the names of sexual assault victims.)

While in prison, Jacobsen closely followed the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995 and the defense’s challenge of the state’s DNA evidence. After the Georgia Legislature passed a law in 2003 that allowed for post-conviction DNA testing, Jacobsen wrote to the New York-based Innocence Project, which ultimately took his case.

Years later, in 2017, DNA tests conducted by the GBI crime lab found that the semen from the victim’s rape kit was not Jacobsen’s. Two years after that, a Newton County judge overturned Jacobsen’s conviction, leading prosecutors to offer him a deal in which he would plead guilty to the crime in exchange for time served.

Even though he would have been set free, Jacobsen turned it down. “I wasn’t going to plead guilty to something I didn’t do,” he said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

That meant Jacobsen was going to spend months longer in prison until he was finally granted bond. While Georgians went to the polls last Nov. 3, Jacobsen was released from custody for the first time in three decades.

Since then, Jacobsen has been living in New York with his sister, only being allowed to venture outside on a limited basis. He has also been required to wear an ankle monitor, which he said he will remove once he has in his hands the order dismissing his case.

“It’s such a travesty Ron lost 30 years of his life,” said Atlanta defense attorney Don Samuel, one of Jacobsen’s lawyers. “When the criminal justice system gets it wrong, it is really tragic. It should make everyone in the justice system reflect on what happens when there is a false conviction, because the result of such a mistake is catastrophic.”

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Atlanta criminal defense attorney Don Samuel speaks during the first day of jury selection at the Tex McIver murder trial in Fulton County Superior Court on March 5, 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Atlanta criminal defense attorney Don Samuel speaks during the first day of jury selection at the Tex McIver murder trial in Fulton County Superior Court on March 5, 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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Atlanta criminal defense attorney Don Samuel speaks during the first day of jury selection at the Tex McIver murder trial in Fulton County Superior Court on March 5, 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Jacobsen’s legal team includes Samuel’s law partner, Amanda Clark Palmer; the New York-based Innocence Project; and the New York law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges. The Georgia Innocence Project has also been involved.

In a statement, District Attorney Randy McGinley said his review of the case led him to believe he could not convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Jacobsen committed the crime more than 30 years ago. He cited the new DNA evidence, the passage of time, and the death of a witness among the reasons why.

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Randy McGinley, district attorney for the Alcovy Judicial Circuit, which comprises Newton and Walton counties. (Photo: randyforalcovyda.com)

Randy McGinley, district attorney for the Alcovy Judicial Circuit, which comprises Newton and Walton counties. (Photo: randyforalcovyda.com)

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Randy McGinley, district attorney for the Alcovy Judicial Circuit, which comprises Newton and Walton counties. (Photo: randyforalcovyda.com)

“Regardless of how difficult a decision is in a particular case, a prosecutor’s job is to make the just decision based solely on the facts and the law,” he said. “That is how I approached this and every decision I make as district attorney.”

Looking ahead, Jacobsen said he would like to find a job and buy a small pickup truck. He has already gotten a driver’s license since being released from prison and is relishing his freedom.

“It was just a matter of time,” he said. “I’m adjusting pretty well since being out, even though so many things have changed.”

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