Ru-El Sailor’s friends and family gather outside the Cleveland Justice Center. (Amy Spence)

Two weeks ago Amy Spence was at her home outside Cleveland waiting for a television reporter to knock on her door. The planned sit-down interview was another cycle in a frustrating six-year emotional ride.

Since 2012, Spence had been attempting to throw a lifeline — something, anything — to her fiance, 38-year-old Ru-El Sailor.

In 2003, Sailor and two others were found guilty of murder, convictions that became suspect almost immediately after the jury uttered the verdict. Sailor has since maintained his innocence, contending that his crime was not homicide but sticking up for a friend. In recent years, Spence has relentlessly tried to bring attention to Sailor’s plight. She’s held signs in the rain outside Cleveland’s Justice Center. She’s cornered politicians at public forums. She’s left dozens upon dozens of unanswered messages for attorneys and reporters.

Two weeks ago, she was planning to make another plea before local television cameras. But as she waited for the interviewer, Spence’s phone started shaking.

“I suddenly kept getting all these text messages from our lawyer. She kept saying ‘Don’t talk to the media yet!’” Spence told me this week. “Something was happening.”

The reason for the pause, Spence learned, was a deal was in the making.

Last week, Spence found out the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office had finally accepted Sailor’s innocence after the inmate’s local attorneys and the Ohio Innocence Project worked out an arrangement with the prosecutor’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), a special branch of the office charged with reviewing wrongful conviction claims. The Cleveland Scene reports that both sides are expected to file a joint motion Wednesday asking the court to vacate Sailor’s conviction. As part of the deal, Sailor will reportedly plead guilty to perjury and obstruction. After 15 years in prison, he could be home this week.

“The Conviction Integrity Unit diligently reviewed the application of Ru-El Sailor and then conducted an extensive investigation into his conviction,” Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Mike O’Malley told Scene. “The Court has scheduled a Wednesday hearing to discuss the findings.”


Ru-El Sailor and his fiancee, Amy Spence. (Photo courtesy of Amy Spence)

Spence says Sailor learned about the deal last week, right as he was coming out of a two-week hunger strike. “Since then he’s given away all his property to people in prison. His TV, radio,” she explained this week. “He’s told me, ‘I’m okay with the solitude. I’m taking the time to collect my thoughts.’”

Although Sailor’s release will signal a victory for the supporters who have been pushing for more than a decade, the situation also underscores the difficulty of getting wrongful convictions vacated under the current legal system — even with forward-looking reforms.

In 2016, while working on a book about Cleveland and wrongful conviction cases, I wrote a feature story in Cleveland Scene on Sailor’s prosecution that examined the inconsistencies in his case. I also spent time with Sailor at the Ohio State Penitentiary.

“To be honest, I was naive about it,” Sailor told me, looking back on his 2003 trial. “I figured that if I didn’t do anything, I might as well let the lawyers take care of it.”

Sailor has never painted himself as an angel. Growing up on Cleveland’s poor and hypersegregated east side, he was caught up in street life.

“I always grew up fascinated by the streets,” Sailor told me. “I wanted the nice things ­— the cars, the money, the clothes — and that inspired me to get into the street life. The people I saw who were working jobs were struggling. The people who don’t and are on the street, they kick it. And it was super easy. If you grew up in the urban area, the most accessible thing you can get your hands on was drugs. Getting wasn’t any problem.”

Drug dealer, yes. But not a killer, Sailor has always claimed.

The November 2002 killing was over $10 and a PCP-laced cigarette. One night, a woman named Nichole Hubbard was drinking and smoking PCP with a group of friends, according to testimony at Sailor’s trial. At one point in the evening, she got into a fight with a man over $10 she had loaned him for drugs. As the fight escalated, she dialed up her brother, Cordell Hubbard.

Across town, he was hopping bars with his own group, including his best friend, Ru-El Sailor, according to testimony. Hubbard responded to his sister’s call, confronting her friends in the middle of a residential street. The men exchanged threats, and a gun was flashed, then fired. A man named Omar Clark bled out on the street, according to trial testimony.

Both Nichole and Cordell Hubbard were eventually arrested and charged with Clark’s death. Witnesses reported seeing Cordell and another man at the crime scene. In March 2003, Sailor was indicted as the second assailant.

He did not match the description witnesses gave of the second man on the scene. No physical evidence tied him to the crime. At trial, a witness testified that he could not identify the second assailant, only to reverse course two days later and tell the jury Sailor was there.

In the end, Sailor likely ruined his own shot at an acquittal.

In 2016, he told me that on the night of the murder he was not sure whether Hubbard had broken away from their barhopping group. But at his trial, Sailor opted to testify he and Hubbard had been together all evening, and they had not been involved in any shooting. He did it out of loyalty, Sailor explained. “Me telling on him, or throwing him under the bus? That was my best friend. We grew up like brothers.”

The jury found Cordell and Nichole Hubbard and Sailor guilty of aggravated murder.

But at the sentencing, Cordell attempted to clear up the situation, telling the judge Sailor had lied on his behalf and that he was with a different friend at the shooting.

“Ru-El Sailor wasn’t present the night when this took place,” Cordell told the court. “I didn’t think it was going to turn out like this. I didn’t think my best friend was going to get convicted as the shooter, but he wasn’t even there.”

The judge, however, handed all three sentences of 28 years to life.

Sailor’s options after his conviction were limited. Claims of innocence are incredibly hard to push through the appellate courts, and Sailor’s attempts were all shot down — even after new witnesses and lie detector results indicated Sailor was telling the truth.

One relatively new option for inmates who say they have been wrongfully convicted is a conviction integrity unit.

For the past decade, prosecutors have attempted to get ahead of wrongful conviction cases by setting up in-house units designed to investigate potential exonerations. According to a 2017 report from the National Registry of Exonerations, as of last year, 33 prosecutors in the U.S. have opened CIUs, including in Cuyahoga County.

But there are questions still about whether these outfits are actively working toward exonerations. Of the 269 CIU exonerations on record through 2017, 84 percent were tied to only four counties. Over a third of active CIUs — 12 out of the 33 — have never been involved in an exoneration. As the report notes, this has led to the criticism that the units are “window dressing or public relations ploys.”

“These criticisms may be fair when a prosecutor’s office benefits from the positive publicity it gets from announcing the creation of a unit that ultimately produces no exonerations and is difficult even to access,” the report argues.

Sailor’s own application to the CIU in Cuyahoga County was filed numerous times since 2016. Only after a change in the office, with the election of the current prosecutor, was the file actively investigated — and the current deal struck. Because of his lie on the witness stand in 2003, Sailor will plead guilty to the perjury and obstruction charges, according to Cleveland media, but his family expects him to be home soon.

“This morning it finally hit me,” Spence, Sailor’s fiancee, told me this week. “This is it, there’s no more fighting to do. We can finally relax and move forward with our lives.”