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updated 1/2/2009 6:36:46 PM ET 2009-01-02T23:36:46
TRANSCRIPT

This report aired on Dateline on Friday, Jan. 2, at 10 p.m. ET.

Ten years ago, Melinda Elkins would happily have described herself as a stay at home mom, a housewife, and proud of it. But on June 7th, 1998, everything changed for her. 

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What happened is the story of how a terrible tragedy would transform an ordinary woman into a would-be C.S.I. investigator.  She would embark upon a dangerous mission in which she took on police and prosecutors - a mission that would tear her family apart and leave her broke during her relentless quest for justice.

On that night, ten years ago, she hadn't slept well.  She was caring for a sick child and waiting for her husband, Clarence, to come home.  He'd been out drinking. A few hours after he got home, early the next morning, she was awakened again by a commotion outside.

It was the police - more than a dozen of them - swarming all over the property. One deputy started questioning Melinda.

Melinda Elkins: He kept asking me questions of who I was, what my mother's name was, and you know, I'm screaming at him to tell me what is going on. And I said, is she okay?  And he said, “No ma'am, she's been murdered.”

SaraJames: This is your mom?

Melinda Elkins: Yeah. (crying)

Melinda learned her mother, 58-year old Judy Johnson, had been savagely strangled and beaten so badly her nose, jaw, collarbone and skull were all broken. Then she'd been raped. What's more, that night Melinda’s mother had been baby-sitting Melinda’s little niece, Brooke.  The six-year old was asleep in bed when she awoke to the sound of murder.

Two years ago, at age 15, Melinda’s niece recalled that awful night.

Brooke: I like got out of bed and I went to the kitchen and I looked and I seen that there was a guy in the kitchen, but it scared me, so I ran back to the bedroom. I just remember like when I went back to the room - like he came in there and then I just remember like I blacked out and then - that's it.

Brooke was horribly beaten, raped and left for dead.  Miraculously, she regained consciousness the next morning, and was able to find the phone and call a neighbor for help.

Answering machine call:

Brooke:  "I'm sorry to tell you this, but my grandma died and I need somebody to get my mom for me. I'm all alone. Somebody killed my grandma.  Now please, would you get a hold of me as soon as you can.  Bye."

When the six-year old couldn't reach anyone on the phone, she ran to a neighbor's house.  The neighbor, Tonia Braisel, asked Brooke to wait on the front porch while she dressed her three children so she could take Brooke home.

When Brooke arrived home about 45 minutes later, her mom -- Melinda's only sister, April Sutton -- could hardly recognize her.

April Sutton: She was covered from head to toe in blood and she was trying to tell me that something was wrong with my mother.

Sara James: When you saw her, you must have been terrified.

April Sutton:  She had told me that they had been attacked and that my mother was stabbed laying in front of the couch dead.

Brooke's father ran to the house, found Brooke’s grandmother, and called police.

9-1-1 call: 

Brooke's father:  My mother-in-law has been stabbed.  My little girl spent the night here and the neighbor just brought her home and said that my mother-in-law was laying on the floor dead.   And I come up here and she's laying here on the floor.  Oh my god.

911operator:  What's that?

Brooke'sfather:  She's dead.

Who could have done it?

As it turned out, Brooke told her mother she could identify the killer ... And he was no stranger.

Brooke: I told her that it looked like my uncle Clarence.

Her uncle Clarence - Melinda’s husband.   

Within the course of a few dizzying minutes, Melinda would learn that her mother had been murdered... and would watch helplessly as her husband, Clarence, was arrested and charged with the crime.

SaraJames: Your niece, who knew your husband well, was saying that he was the person who attacked her?

Melinda Elkins: Yes. Those were her first words, that it looked like Uncle Clarence.

Melinda Elkins was grappling with the incomprehensible: She'd learned her mother had been brutally killed, her niece raped and left for dead. 

Now detectives at the Barberton, Ohio police department had just charged her husband Clarence with the crimes.

Melinda Elkins: The whole feel of it was just kind of surreal, I mean, I remember thinking, this can't be happening.

What made the situation even more surreal: Her husband's accuser was their niece, Brooke, who was attacked that same night.

And yet -- Melinda believed wholeheartedly in her husband's innocence.

Sara James:  You were convinced he hadn't done it?

Melinda Elkins: Convinced is not the word. I absolutely knew 100 percent that he did not do that.

And it wasn't just that she'd been married to Clarence for 18 years and knew his character.  Ironically, Melinda’s confidence in her husband's innocence stemmed from an incident which infuriated her.  On the night her mother was murdered, Clarence had been out late --drinking heavily -- at a local bar. 

Clarence Elkins: I went out and had a couple beers with my friends and came home about 2:40 a.m. Sunday morning.

Police said Melinda's mother - Judy Johnson - had been murdered between 2:30 and 5:30 in the morning -- and she lived an hour away. 

Sara James: Were you in any shape to make that drive?

Clarence Elkins: No, no. 

What's more, Melinda says she'd seen Clarence when he returned home since she'd been up half the night, caring for a sick child.

But police were equally absolute in their conviction that Clarence was guilty. The rudimentary DNA tests available back in 1998 didn't provide any evidence to link Clarence to the crime but authorities relied on other evidence to build their case.

First and foremost, there was Brooke’s eyewitness identification, and friends of Melinda's mother told police that her relationship with Clarence was rocky – more than enough proof for police and Melinda's side of the family.

Melinda Elkins: They were mad at me, they were upset that I would lie, and, you know, stick up for him.

The family split  -  and Melinda and her sister - both grieving the loss of their mother - stopped speaking to each other. At the funeral, Melinda was shunned by her relatives. Standing in the cemetery that day, all alone, without her mother, without her husband, Melinda made a promise to her mom.

Melinda Elkins: That I would find out who did this to her and Brooke. 

But as Clarence languished in jail, mounting legal bills forced her to the brink of bankruptcy.  She'd lost her job, then her home -- and one year after the murder, her husband went on trial for his life, and their niece was the star witness for the prosecution. 

Brooke: I remember when they asked me to point him out, and I just remember all these people staring at me.

After thirteen hours of deliberations, the jury reached a verdict.

Sara James:  And the verdict was?

Melinda Elkins: Guilty...Guilty on murder.  Guilty on aggravated assault, guilty on three counts of rape.

Clarence Elkins: I couldn't believe the words.  I didn't believe the words. I didn't.  I heard ‘em but it was like - say what you want to say.  I know i'm not guilty.  I'm innocent.

Melinda watched in shock as her husband was led away. 

Melinda Elkins: I said I love you. And he turned and said I love you.

Sara James: Did you tell him anything else?

Melinda Elkins: this isn't over.

But it was -- as far as everyone else was concerned -- when a judge sentenced Clarence Elkins to life in prison.  He wouldn't be eligible for parole until the year 2054.  It was case closed for everyone except for one person.

SaraJames: All you knew was your husband didn't do it.  That didn't mean you knew who did.

Melinda Elkins: That's right.

Sara James: And you were going to have to figure it out.

Melinda Elkins: Exactly.

And she would have to figure it out with no money, no clues, and no investigative experience.

Soon, she'd find herself doing her own detective work, going undercover, putting herself in dangerous situations, driven by her unwavering belief in her husband's innocence.

Melinda Elkins had made a vow - a graveside promise to her murdered mother to track down the true killer.  And she had another reason to live up to that vow.  She hoped she could find the evidence to free her husband now serving time for that murder. But with her high school diploma and no investigative training, Melinda didn't know where to start.

So she contacted a private investigator -- Martin Yant.  Yant has worked on 12 cases that led to exonerations of wrongfully convicted defendants. Yant told Melinda he didn't believe police had done a thorough investigation.

Sara James: how would you grade it, A to F?

MartinYant: F.

Yant agreed to take the case, and along the way, teach her some tricks of the trade to become a detective herself.

Sara James: How did you transform yourself from wife to mom to CSI investigator?

MelindaElkins:  Determination, I guess. A really strong drive to find out who did this.

Melinda launched her investigation by scrutinizing her mother's life -- making a list of men Judy Johnson knew who could be potential suspects.

MelindaElkins:  It was a little notebook that I had. It became filled with names, and just about daily I would go through it.

And she went one step further. Her plan was to angle for opportunities to collect DNA from potential suspects and then test it.

She hit the run-down streets of her mother's neighborhood in Barberton, Ohio -  frequented bars where the men she suspected were known to hang out , collecting their DNA without them knowing it - from a beer glass, a strand of hair, a cigarette butt. 

MelindaElkins:  If you can imagine sitting across from someone and having a conversation with them while you're thinking, "Is this the person that killed my mother and raped my niece?"

Melinda's months of dangerous field work paid off as she surreptitiously collected DNA samples from various suspects. But then her investigation slammed into a roadblock.  It would cost thousands of dollars to test just one sample.  And Melinda was broke.  She'd lost everything she had paying for Clarence's defense.

And there wasn't only the question of money to pay for DNA testing. How would they overcome the cornerstone of the prosecution's case? That damning eyewitness testimony by Melinda's little niece, Brooke, who'd said Clarence was the killer?

Melinda hadn't seen her niece or her sister in three years.  Unsure what to expect, Melinda made an unannounced visit to her sister's home to see if she could talk to her niece Brooke.

Melinda Elkins:  She hesitated for just a short few seconds. And then she hugged me like she hadn't seen me in 3 1/2 years.

And when they finally had a chance to talk, Melinda was in for a stunning revelation. 

Brooke - by then nine years old - said she was no longer sure.   Recently, she'd had a look at a photo of her uncle.  After studying it closely, she was overwhelmed by doubt.

Brooke: It just like stunned me.

SaraJames: You just stared at it.

Brooke:  Yeah. I was just standing there looking at him.  I missed him and I can't believe I put him in jail.

Soon after, Clarence's attorney questioned Brooke in this videotaped deposition.

Lawyer: Why did you say it was Uncle Clarence?

Brooke:  Because it looked like him.

Lawyer:  it looked like him.  Um...but do you think it was Uncle Clarence?

Brooke:  At first, yeah.

Lawyer:  At first, yeah.  But do you think so today?

Brooke:  no.

But after watching the deposition, prosecutor Sherri Bevan-Walsh was not convinced. She thought the girl had been coached to change her story.

SherriBevan-Walsh: When this occurred with the little girl recanting-- we did think it was just yet one more way to try to get a new trial that, in fact, was not true.

Clarence's lawyers did ask for a new trial. 

Melinda was stunned when a judge denied their request agreeing with the prosecutor’s assessment that Brooke had been pressured into changing her story by that recent family reunion.

Now 38-years-old, Clarence would remain behind bars . Melinda was undaunted.  She spearheaded rallies, kept her story alive in the media, and organized an Internet-fundraising drive which drew international interest and raised close to $40,000.

SaraJames: You felt confident that if you could get the DNA evidence from the crime scene and match that against your husband's, it would prove he didn't do it?

Melinda Elkins: Right.

Melinda realized she desperately needed more legal manpower. She had heard about a new legal clinic at the University of Cincinnati Law School - it was called the Ohio innocence project.   The pro-bono program was dedicated to freeing wrongfully convicted prisoners. 

Former prosecutor Mark Godsey runs the program.

SaraJames: Did you find yourself believing that she might have a significant case here? Might have a real case?

MarkGodsey: Yeah, absolutely.  I could tell that this had a lot of DNA that wasn't tested yet. And so, that's the crucial thing we're looking for.

While Melinda's defense team pushed to get samples of DNA from the crime scene, the original prosecutors were dead set against it.

But Sherri Bevan Walsh - who inherited this case when she took office in 2000 - later agreed to turn it over, setting in motion a chain of events that would turn this case upside-down.

SaraJames: My understanding is that wasn't a very popular decision among your own staff.

Sherri Bevan Walsh:There were differences of opinion, certainly, at the office.

SaraJames: That's a risky move.  Suddenly, it's out there--

SherriBevanWalsh: If I had worries about it, I certainly didn't have to turn it over. We believed that by testing the evidence-- it would show that the other person they were accusing did not do it.

When the murder took place back in 1998, DNA screening hadn't been sophisticated enough to get conclusive results in this case.  But testing procedures had improved dramatically and now experts could even test for DNA left in skin cells, not just bodily fluids.

When the defense tested a sample from Melinda's mother's body, this time the DNA results were conclusive. The first crime scene sample tested had been collected from Melinda's mother's body.  And this time, using the latest techniques, the lab said -- DNA was present.

Sara James: When they tested it, what did they find out?

Melinda Elkins: They found male DNA.

Sara James: And that DNA, did it match Clarence?

Melinda Elkins: no, it did not.

They also tested skins cells discovered on a pair of Brooke’s underwear found under the couch at the crime scene.

Melinda Elkins: There was male DNA on those panties.

Sara James: And did it match Clarence?

Melinda Elkins: no, it did not.

And while the DNA didn't match Melinda's suspect either, suddenly what the conviction prosecutor Walsh had been told was rock solid showed signs of significant cracks. 

SaraJames: Was that, in essence, opening a Pandora’s box when she gave you that DNA?

Melinda Elkins: For them, it was.

SaraJames: And for you?

Melinda Elkins: For me, it was the light at the end of the tunnel.

It seemed clear to Melinda that Clarence would be exonerated, but not to Prosecutor Walsh.

She said because it was skin cell DNA, and not DNA from bodily fluid, it was not convincing enough proof that Clarence was innocent.

SherriBevanWalsh: It would make my job as a prosecutor easier if it were very simple to say, "There's a mystery man.  That's the real killer.  And this person's excluded, and we're done." 

SaraJames: Not that fast?

SherriBevanWalsh: It's just not that fast.  Because of skin cells transferring so easily on a pair of underwear, for example, it-- it could be so many people.

The court ruled that because prosecutors had convicted Clarence based on that compelling eyewitness testimony from Brooke, a jury would have reached the same conclusion even if it had known his DNA didn't match that found at the crime scene.  Clarence would stay in prison.

Melinda Elkins: I just couldn't believe it. My thought was, what is it gonna take. They want me to hand this murderer on a silver platter to them? Well, by damn, that's what I'm gonna do.

MelindaElkins was convinced that she'd proven her husband's innocence. DNA samples collected at the crime scene didn't match her husband. He couldn't be her mother's killer. And yet the court refused to grant Clarence a new trial. He was about to spend his seventh year in prison.  But MelindaElkins refused to give up.

Melinda Elkins: They are not gonna get away with this. What the hell are they going? What are they thinking?

But her only chance to win her husband's freedom, MelindaElkins realized, was to track down the nameless, faceless person who had gotten away with murder. And as MelindaElkins went back over all the old leads she had come up with, a newspaper article caught her eye. It focused her attention on one woman who had played a key role the morning after the murder, her mother's neighbor, Tonia Brasiel. 

Remember, Brasiel said she was making her kids breakfast when a battered and blood-stained little Brooke showed up on her doorstep to say her grandma had been murdered.

MelindaElkins had always wondered why Brasiel left the child on her porch for 45 minutes, before driving her home.  Why didn't she just call 911 right away?

As MelindaElkins read that newspaper article about Tonia Brasiel, she began to suspect why.

Melinda Elkins: What jumped out at me was Tonia Brasiel's name in the article. And what it had said was her common law husband had been charged with three counts of rape of children under the age of ten.

It turned out Tonia Brasiel's common law husband, Earl Eugene Mann, was a violent career criminal and convicted sexual predator.   What's more, he'd just been released from prison in June of 1998, two days before the murder. 

Sara James: Did he quickly go to number one suspect?

Melinda Elkins: Absolutely.

Sara James: Top of the list?

Melinda Elkins: Top of the list.

By now a seasoned investigator, Melinda Elkins knew exactly what she needed. She had to find some way to collect Earl Mann's DNA to see if it matched those crime scene samples. But there was a big problem because Earl Mann was behind bars sentenced to seven years.

Sara James: How were you gonna get DNA of a guy who's in prison?

Melinda Elkins: Send him letters of wanting to be a pen pal.

That was Melinda Elkins's plan. In writing to Mann, she pretended to be someone else.

If he responded -- and licked the envelope -- a lab could test for his DNA.

Sara James: What did it feel like to write those letters to this man who you thought killed your mother and raped your niece?

Melinda Elkins:  Made me sick.

Melinda Elkins wrote eighteen letters in all...and all in vain. Then, she found out that Earl Mann had been transferred to a new facility, Mansfield Correctional.  In an unbelievable stroke of luck, it was the very prison where Clarence was serving his sentence.

Melinda Elkins: It was an absolute miracle.

Even more extraordinary --  Mann was transferred to Clarences's very cell block. 

Melinda Elkins had a thought. Maybe there would be some way for her husband to collect Mann's DNA.

Clarence Elkins: I come in one hot summer day and seeing out of the corner of my eye that Earl Mann was putting out a cigarette butt. I just knew at that point I need to do something.

Clarence picked the butt out of the ashtray.

Clarence Elkins:  And took it in my cell. And stuck it in one of my Bibles.

And just in the nick of time. Earl Mann was transferred to another prison a few days after he got the DNA, so if that opportunity hadn't come up, it would have been lost forever.

Two weeks later, Clarence smuggled the cigarette butt out in a letter to his attorney who immediately sent it to a lab for testing.

Sara James: And when you tested it, what did it show?

Melinda Elkins: A match to the crime scene evidence.

That's right.  Earl Mann's DNA matched DNA from the crime scene --

Melinda Elkins: Now tell me "no." I dare you to tell me no.

Then, lawyers learned of another, even more specific DNA test which could be conducted on a pubic hair found on little Brooke's panties.

Sara James: And what did you find?

Mark Godsey: That came back as a perfect match to Earl Mann.

A perfect match to defense attorney Godsey; not totally convincing to Prosecutor Walsh.   But still impressive enough for her to take note.

Sherri Bevan Walsh: It was too weak to immediately charge Earl Mann with aggravated murder, but it was very concerning. 

Walsh then wanted to know everything she could about Earl Mann.

Sara James: Did you go and get-- the file on Earl Mann and pull that out?

Sherri Bevan Walsh: I got several files on Earl Mann.  And we read the facts. I don't really know how to describe it-- my jaw just dropped.  And I recall saying, this man seems very capable of being the real killer. And I thought, "Clarence Elkins might really be innocent."

Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh had seen the DNA results of that cigarette butt from Clarence Elkins’ team.  She had also read the file on the new prime suspect: Earl Eugene Mann. Her conclusion:  Perhaps Clarence wasn't the killer after all.  But there was a difference between what she believed and what she could prove. So she immediately sent her investigators to see Earl Mann in prison with a plan to get him to talk.

Sherri Bevan Walsh: They used good investigative techniques-- basically, they told him, "we're here to clear you.  we are here to clear you.  Clarence is in prison.  we're not lettin' him out."

Just take a lie detector test, investigators suggested to Mann, and that will prove you are innocent.  And to keep up the pretext that investigators were really trying to nail Clarence and not Earl Mann, Clarence would be kept in prison even longer while investigators tried to get Mann to talk.

Clarence Elkins would be a pawn in this game, and what he, and Melinda Elkins didn't know was that prosecutors were trying to clear him.

Melinda Elkins: I really didn't think they were going to look into it as seriously as they did-- simply because they wanted to hold onto their conviction.

In fact, Clarence Elkins - he thought he was being punished for smuggling that cigarette butt out of prison - was put in solitary confinement.  In fact, it was for his own safety to make sure Mann's pals didn't try to kill him.

Clarence Elkins: I went to solitary confinement or-- you know, to the hole, they call it, for three months.  And it was one of the hardest times while I was incarcerated, the most difficult times.

Melinda Elkins feared that solitary would break Clarence. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, police were trying to break Earl Mann.

Polygraphexaminer:  Any questions before we get going?

Eugene Earl Mann:  Am I doing okay or what (laughs)?

Polygraphexaminer: Like I said before, when I'm doing the test, I'm watching you.

In this exclusive video obtained by dateline, Mann takes the first of five polygraph tests.

Polygraphexaminer:  Were you inside Judith Johnson’s home when she was killed?

Eugene Earl Mann: No.

Polygraphexaminer:  Did you kill Judith Johnson?

Eugene Earl Mann: No.

Over the course of weeks, then months, Mann flunked every polygraph test while investigators started finding cracks in his story. At first, he said he didn't know Judith Johnson, Melinda Elkins's mother.

Polygraphexaminer: There may be nuclear DNA going back to the lab that's being analyzed as we speak that belongs to Earl Mann, right?  What-- what I-- what I need--

Eugene Earl Mann: The thing is, man, I did not hurt that woman.  I did not kill her, okay?  I can't do that, okay?  I can't just brutally beat a woman like that. Whoever did that was angry with that woman, man.

Then he said he did know her...and had an admission. On the night of the murder, he claimed he had had consensual sex with Johnson, but that she was still alive when he left her house.

Investigator: Isn't it also possible that there is an innocent man in prison?

Eugene Earl Mann: I doubt it. I believe Elkins killed this broad.

But Walsh felt she still needed more: better science, stronger and more conclusive DNA results.   

Melinda Elkins believed, however, that she'd delivered her mother's killer to Prosecutor Walsh and that she was doing nothing about it.

Melinda Elkins: Well, I think it's time they admit that. 

Melinda Elkins prayed her husband would be home in time to open presents with his family for the first time in nearly eight years.

Melinda Elkins: I think this would be the best Christmas present that any of us could ever ask for.

Armed with her latest DNA evidence, MelindaElkins and her legal team prepared for a press conference that day to call for Clarence's immediate release.

Then, just minutes before the press conference began, MelindaElkins got the news she'd been waiting for. After seven and a half years, the prosecutor was dropping all charges against Melinda Elkins's husband....her investigation had moved far enough along that she could let him out of prison.

MelindaElkins now had a call to make - one she'd been hoping of making for more than seven years.

Melinda Elkins: You ready to come home? Then get your stuff packed, honey, you're coming home today.

On a snowy December day in 2005, Clarence Elkins, now 42-years-old, walked out of prison -- free at last.

ClarenceElkins: It's a beautiful day the Lord has made. I am very proud of everyone who has stepped forward on my behalf for justice. 

A reunion filled with tears and happiness.

ClarenceElkins:  I got what I wanted for Christmas.  My life back with my family.

His two sons – and a wife to whom he owed his very liberty.

ClarenceElkins:  MelindaElkins is a very courageous and a strong person and she never gave up.

But the celebration was bittersweet. There was outrage that it had taken so long for a catastrophic mistake to be corrected.

ClarenceElkins:  I am angry at everyone that had a part in arresting me and prosecuting me. I put the anger behind me in the back of my head for all those years, but it comes out at times. And it's not easy to deal with.

Sara James: Do you ever look back on that time, that period of a couple of months, and say, "Clarence Elkins spent several months, at the very least, above and beyond what he needed to spend." 

Sherri Bevan Walsh: We needed to thoroughly investigate this case. And we did it as fast as we possibly could.Do I feel horrible about what happened?  I-- I do. 

When Prosecutor Sherri Bevan-Walsh dropped the charges against Clarence, she publically announced she had made a mistake and for the first time identified Earl Mann as the new prime suspect.

Sherri Bevan Walsh: We are expecting that by the completion of this investigation, that charges will be forthcoming against Earl Mann.

Strangely enough, years later when the story finally did come out about the cat and mouse game Walsh played with Earl Mann at the expense of Clarence Elkins, the prosecutor  gained an unlikely supporter of that decision: her most vocal opponent, Melinda Elkins.

Melinda Elkins: Well, in Clarence's case, I truly would say that that was the only option-- but in the long run, to make the wrong right, there had to be a sacrifice.  And unfortunately, that was laid on-- on Clarence.

Now the question was, would the sacrifice be worth it?     

Sherri Bevan Walsh: I know he's guilty, but can I prove that? Can we prove that to a jury?

While Earl Mann remained in prison, prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh continued to test for more DNA matches to strengthen her case.     

Sherri Bevan Walsh: I know he's guilty, but can I prove that? Can we prove that to a jury is the next issue--

Sara James: And not only--

Sherri Bevan Walsh: --that we had to deal with.

Sara James: --prove it, but overcome the fact that you've already convicted somebody else and messed up.

Sherri Bevan Walsh: That-- and that's exactly right.

For seven and a half years, prosecutors had told the world they had the killer and his name was Clarence Elkins...

Sherri Bevan Walsh: I think it hurts our credibility. So we need to have an even stronger case against Earl Mann to-- to try to overcome the negatives.

Clarence was finally released in December 2005, but more than a year later, prosecutors still hadn't filed charges against Earl Mann.    

Melinda Elkins: It was very nerve-wracking. I felt that I was going into fight mode again. And was gonna have to fight to get him actually indicted. 

Finally, after getting even more DNA linking Mann to the crime - this time, sweat from his hands on Brooke's panties - in June 2007, Earl Mann was indicted. 

Clarence and Melinda Elkins went to his arraignment and watched him plead not guilty via closed circuit camera. Melinda Elkins thought her quest for justice might soon be over.

But Earl Mann was about to do something that would torture his victims all over again. With a trial looming just months away, Mann made a shocking announcement in court that sent shivers down Melinda Elkins's spine.

Mann told a judge that he had fired his lawyers and that he would represent himself at trial.

Mann in court: I pretty much feel I got myself into this mess by talking to investigators in this case. And what the state alleges a partial confession is in fact false, they know it and I feel I should get myself out of it. If not, I'm the one who will have to suffer the consequences.

Sara James: You learned that Earl Mann was saying he was gonna represent himself which would mean that he would have the ability to cross-examine everybody including Brooke.

Melinda Elkins: It scared me. I did not want to have to put Brooke through that.  I didn't-- no one wanted to-- her to go through that. 

She never had to. After seven and a half years, and all of Melinda Elkins's investigating, Earl Mann would finally admit in court that he killed her mother and attacked her niece. The court announced that Mann had negotiated a plea agreement. Before his sentencing, MelindaElkins and Clarence would finally confront in court the demon who'd demolished their lives.

Melinda Elkins: All the pain and anguish that he caused my mother and my niece and my family and myself just exploded.  All the things that I have felt for so many years, I-- I finally was able to-- let it go. 

Mann was sentenced to 55 years in prison, and won't be eligible for parole until he's 92. Now, at long last, Clarence Elkins was not only free, he was free from suspicion and doubt.  Why didn't this day come sooner? 

Melinda Elkins thinks it's partly because prosecutors felt she was just another criminal's wife trying to get her husband out of jail. However, in her case, she says, there was one important difference that made her more credible.

Melinda Elkins: I think that-- prosecutors are geared-- that most women-- do protect their men, do lie for their men.  But it-- if you put in the factor that it was my mother who was brutally murdered and raped, I think they should have at least said, "let's look at someone else."

For many years, the fate of Clarence Elkins seemed to boil down to a battle of wills between two strong women, MelindaElkins and prosecutor Sherri Bevan-Walsh. But in the end, there was common ground.

SherriBevan-Walsh: For whatever anyone wants to say about MelindaElkins and her aggressiveness and how vocal she was-- if it weren't for MelindaElkins, this wouldn't of happened.

Melinda Elkins: I did what I had to do. I'm not super woman, I'm your average person and I could not let my mother's death be a-- statistic.  I just wasn't going to do that.  I had to know who did it.

But unfortunately, there would be no story book ending for MelindaElkins and Clarence Elkins. After his release, their marriage was impossible to rekindle. Clarence had been gone for so long and so much had changed.  Shortly after his release,  he and MelindaElkins separated and later divorced.

Melinda Elkins: During the 7.5 years when I fought for this case, I pushed emotions back so far that that feeling of being his wife was gone.

Clarence Elkins: I don't know where to pick up really. I have a tendency to go back before I was arrested. Ad just want to be with my sons everyday like nothing ever happened.

But recently one thing has helped salve the wounds of their breakup, a little girl named Madison, MelindaElkins and Clarence's first grandchild.

Melinda Elkins: She has brought joy and happiness-- real joy and happiness that you feel every time you look at her.

Sara James: That always brings hope and optimism, doesn't it?

Melinda Elkins: Yes.  I think that we were given an overdose of hope through this whole thing;  that's what we clung to. But now it's-- it's more of a happier hope.  Things are-- things will get better. 

For so many years hope was all there was. Now after seeing hope translated into reality, on the day Earl Mann pleaded guilty, MelindaElkins went to the place where she made that promise to her mother ten years before.

Melinda Elkins: We went to the cemetery and we put flowers on the grave and we released balloons and that-- that day was for her, that day was-- she finally got justice.

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