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Accusers - He didn't do it

Brad Dicken, Brad, The Chronicle, July 19, 2007

Joel Covender was convicted of molesting his stepchildren and spent 11 years in prison. But the two accusers now say it was all made up.

Now they say he never touched them, and a county judge is giving the 39-year-old registered sex offender another shot to prove his innocence in a new trial.

"I'm just not afraid to fight," Covender said Wednesday. "I want my name cleared. I lost a lot these 11 years."

Covender was released from prison on parole in February after the two victims, now adults, asked the state Parole Board to set him free. They also signed affidavits recanting their testimony, which persuaded Common Pleas Judge James Miraldi to order the new trial in the 1994 case.


Covender's 20-year-old former stepdaughter, who was 6 when she was allegedly fondled, now insists Covender never touched her.

"Today, as an adult I can confidently say that Joel Covender never molested me," the girl, now a mother herself, wrote in her affidavit. "I would remember if something like that had occurred."

She barely remembers being interviewed about it when she was a child, but wrote in her affidavit that she does remember 

"that I felt pressure from grown-ups involved to say what they wanted me to say."

Covender's former stepson, now 18, goes one step further. 

He remembers several of the details that he told detectives investigating the case when he was 5. He now says he made all of it up to please his grandparents -- his mother's former in-laws -- and insists that Covender never molested him, either. 

"I remember wanting to please all these grown-ups," he wrote in his affidavit.

The 18-year-old told Miraldi during a June hearing that he lied because he wanted to be "placed with his sister, who was receiving attention," the judge wrote in his decision.

W. Scott Ramsey, Covender's attorney, said the children were manipulated into making horrific false allegations against their stepfather.

"We all hate child rape -- even criminal defense attorneys hate it -- but they're children, and they can be manipulated," Ramsey said.

Why now?

Covender said he's not angry with his former stepchildren for what they told detectives and a jury during his 1996 trial; he's just glad they're coming forward.

"I think finally, because they're adults now, they're just fed up and wanted to tell the truth," he said.

April Goode, the mother of the children who accused Covender of molesting them, said she never believed the charges against her now ex-husband, whom she divorced while he was in prison.

She said she'll never forget when she lost custody of her children for standing by her husband when he was first accused. She said she didn't regain full custody until around 2000.

Even then, Goode said, she didn't pressure the children to change their story, though she believed they had been manipulated by her first husband's family into making the allegations in the first place.

She said her former in-laws never cared for Covender and seemed bent on getting him out of her life because he pushed for her first husband to
pay her money he owed and because she and Covender were raising the children as Jehovah's Witnesses.

Still, she refrained from trying to coax what she thought was the truth out of the children.

"We didn't talk about those things, because they were still underage," she said. "I did not want to do anything to influence the kids."

But about a year ago, the children were ready to talk about what happened all those years ago.

"(They) were getting more and more upset about it," she said.

In the end, they decided on their own to go forward and try to set their former stepfather free, both of Covender's former stepchildren wrote in their affidavits.

Another conviction?

There's still a chance, Ramsey admitted, that a jury could reconvict Covender despite the fact that the two victims now say nothing ever happened, but he's hoping prosecutors will simply drop the charges and allow Covender to get on with his life. 

"If he's an innocent man who's already been robbed of 11 years, what else are you going to do to him?" he asked.

When he was still an assistant county prosecutor in 1994, current County Prosecutor Dennis Will presented the case to the grand jury that indicted Covender on the two counts each of felonious penetration and gross sexual imposition, of which he was ultimately convicted.

Will doesn't recall the case, but he said when witnesses change their story after they've already testified, it calls their credibility into question. He also said trial judges are advised by higher courts to view recanted testimony with the "utmost suspicion."

Judge Miraldi said he did just that, but in the end he believes he did the right thing. 

"If they're telling the truth, we've got an innocent guy who's been sitting in prison for over 10 years," he said.

Will said he plans to review the case before deciding what to do, but his office could appeal Miraldi's decision, take it to trial or drop the charges. If there's evidence the children were molested, Will said he'll fight to uphold Covender's conviction, no matter what the alleged victims now say.

"If someone has committed an offense, they've committed an offense," he said.

15 to 50 years

There's no shortage of prison inmates who proclaim their innocence, and child molesters reportedly have a tougher time behind bars than most.

But after he was sentenced to 15 to 50 years in prison by former Common Pleas Judge Lynett McGough after a jury convicted him, Covender was -- by official accounts -- a model prisoner.

The Parole Board's decision lists no infractions on the former electrical technician's record.

Covender said he made friends with the right people on the inside, inmates who were as laid back as he was and looking to avoid trouble.

Still, he refused to participate in any sexual offender counseling that prison officials suggested to him, insisting he would never admit to committing a crime he didn't do.

Goode said her life fell apart when her then-husband was accused of being a child molester. It hasn't been much better since -- particularly when his mother died while he was serving time.

"It's hard watching someone you love going through something like that," she said. "It's been traumatic to say the least, for years."

When he was interviewed by a Parole Board member in September 2006, Covender said he fully expected that he might get time added to his sentence when he refused to admit his guilt.

"I said, 'I'm about to tell you something you've probably heard 1 million times before,' " Covender said. "And he said, 'What's that?' I said, 'I'm innocent.' "

After hearing his story, Covender said, the Parole Board member told him he had served enough time, and he was freed a few months after a full hearing of the Parole Board in December.

Life outside

Covender might be free, but he's still under close scrutiny. As a condition of his release, he's not allowed contact with minors, even his biological son and daughter -- now 15 and 14 -- whom he had custody of while he was out on bond and awaiting trial in the mid-1990s.

"If I was such a bad guy, they would have taken away our son and daughter," he said.

Covender is now subject to an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew and is required to register as a sex offender with the sheriff in Wayne County, where he now lives with his brother.

A 1986 Midview graduate, he said he didn't want to come home to his native Lorain County because he feels the county's justice system failed him.

"I just don't really have a desire to live in Lorain County. They done me wrong," he said. "I used to believe in a thing called justice, but I don't believe in justice anymore."

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