Cameo Pettaway went home a free man Thursday, nine months after his arrest for the brutal slayings of a Springfield Township couple.
Citing a lack of sufficient evidence, Lucas County Common Pleas Judge James Bates acquitted the defendant on all charges Thursday afternoon, after a jury heard 3 1/2 days of testimony but before the trial got to the jury deliberation stage.
Mr. Pettaway, 23, and co-defendant Samuel Williams, 24, were each charged with aggravated murder in connection with the deaths of Lisa Straub and Johnny Clarke last fall.
DNA of each of the two accused men was found on a cigarette butt collected from inside the Straub home where the couple were suffocated with plastic bags over their heads and strangled by duct tape wrapped tightly around their necks.
A jury hearing Williams' case began deliberating Thursday afternoon but stopped about 9 p.m. and was sequestered in a hotel.
"All of the critical objects were taken by the [Bureau of Criminal Investigation] to be analyzed -- bags, duct tape, knives, butcher blocks, cell phones," Judge Bates said. "The house was trashed. Drawers were opened. Objects were taken and thrown around, and other than the cigarette butt, nothing has anything to do with Cameo Pettaway."
He said he was expecting the cell phone records presented by prosecutors to implicate Mr. Pettaway in the January, 2011, slayings, but if anything they did the opposite.
"I thought this is really going to put Mr. Pettaway in Holland during this critical time period," the judge said. "If anything the cell phone records showed that Mr. Pettaway may not have been at the scene. I'm surprised that the cell phone records were even utilized in evidence."
He said it was a difficult decision, but that he was "required by law" to acquit Mr. Pettaway on the charges after defense attorneys made a motion for acquittal.
Because of double-jeopardy law, Mr. Pettaway cannot be tried again on the charges
"This is a horrendous fact situation," Judge Bates said. "… Two young lives were taken for no apparent reason, but the question still remains, at least in this case, of who took those two young people's lives."
The Straub and Clarke families left Judge Bates' courtroom in tears without comment.
Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates also declined to comment on the verdict, saying there was still a gag order in place, and she was bound by the court not to speak about the case until the order was lifted.
Mark Geudtner and Merle Dech, attorneys for Mr. Pettaway said the same, although both smiled and embraced Mr. Pettaway's mother, Kenyatta Baker, and stepfather, Jermaine Baker, as they waited for his release outside the county jail.
"God gave us a victory," a grateful Mrs. Baker said.
"I'm still at a loss for words," Mr. Baker said, adding that he and his family want to send their condolences to the Straub and Clarke families.
"The thing that hurt me most about this is I know these families are grieving. I feel their pain. I lost a brother to murder so I understand that, but you have to want to seek justice, not vengeance."
While the Bakers waited outside the jail for Mr. Pettaway to be released, they learned deputies had taken him to Wood County on an outstanding misdemeanor warrant from Perrysburg Municipal Court.
Bond was posted by a family member while Mr. Pettaway was en route to Bowling Green, and he was released.
Mrs. Baker said she and other supporters have prayed for justice, and she prays for the Straub and Clarke families too.
"We want the people to get the victory, to find the killers because if that was my kid, I would want that," she said, adding that when her son was locked up she felt like she'd lost him.
"It was awful for us to lose our kid too. What they didn't understand was you aren't the only one losing a kid. He's got five kids and he's a really good dad. He lost a lot in this."
Mrs. Baker said she did not believe Williams, a childhood friend of her son's, was involved in the murders any more than her son was.
"It's been a horrible thing," Mrs. Baker said.
"I don't know how that cigarette butt got there. I don't have an explanation. I don't know, but I just don't believe those two did it."
Staff writer Erica Blake contributed to this report.
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6129.