This story is the eighth in a series, Unrequited Innocence, that looks at cases where people were sentenced to die and have not been exonerated despite significant evidence of innocence.
The bodies of Bearnhardt and Cora Hartig, both 81, were found on the kitchen floor of their rural Ohio home in 1990, along with ten .25-caliber shell casings. Police found open jewelry boxes in the bedroom that had been rifled through.
Shortly before the couple was discovered, Tyrone Lee Noling used a .25-caliber pistol that he had stolen during a robbery in a nearby town as he committed a robbery there. Noling was questioned about the murders, but he was not charged after ballistics tests showed his stolen pistol was not the murder weapon.
But after the local prosecutor reopened the case two years later, three of Noling’s associates implicated themselves and Noling under questioning by investigator Ron Craig.
Noling was indicted, but the charges were dropped in 1993. Two years later, he was indicted again.
While the murder weapon was never found, Noling volunteered for and passed a polygraph test. Noling and his alleged co-conspirators were excluded as sources of the fingerprints found in the house and on the shell casings and jewelry boxes.
The prosecution relied at the 1996 trial on the testimony of three associates with whom Noling had been living and committing crimes. Two received plea deals for their cooperation, and the third testified under a grant of immunity.
The associates said the four had committed the robberies in a nearby town, then got into a car and rode together to Atwater, where Noling and another associate, Gary St. Clair, entered the home of the Hartigs. One of the witnesses said he had smelled gun smoke when Noling came back to the car. One of the four testified he had actually seen the smoking weapon.
Though St. Clair recanted his statement before trial, he was called as a hostile witness for the prosecution, which read his prior statement into the record.
Two jailhouse informants also testified that Noling confessed the murders to them. Paul Garner said Noling said he didn’t mean to kill the Hartigs, that it “just happened,” and Ronnie Gantz claimed Noling admitted the murders after initially pointing the finger at St. Clair.
The jury found Noling guilty and he was sentenced to death. In his appeal, the Ohio courts turned aside Noling’s direct appeals in which he argued that his conviction was “against the manifest weight of the evidence.”
Sixteen years after the murder, the Ohio Innocence Project, together with the Ohio Public Defender, identified two other suspects who previously had been undisclosed; the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that its own investigation “raises serious doubts about the testimony the government used to sentence Noling to death.” In addition, Noling’s two associates recanted their trial testimony, claiming they had been coerced by the prosecution to falsely implicate themselves in the murders and identify Noling as the killer.
In June 2010, Noling sought advanced DNA testing, hoping to link a cigarette butt found at the scene to one of the alternate suspects. He sought a new trial based on the failure to disclose the alternate suspects before his 1996 trial.
Neither request has succeeded in court. In 2018 the Ohio Supreme Court affirmed the denial of new DNA testing, and Noling remains on death row.