Time for Second Chances
By Amy E. Kelly
At Keifer Academy in Springfield, Ohio, Darnell Carter ’75 calmly works alongside students who are struggling. Some may only need help with their courses, while others need to set a new course for their lives.
To the students, he’s merely a tutor. Had they seen him in his first profession, they’d know his classroom was a courtroom and the lessons being learned were much more serious.
As a Clark County assistant prosecuting attorney in Springfield, Carter prosecuted some of the worst crimes imaginable. He held the post for 28 years and when he retired with many awards and commendations, he could have easily just kicked back and relaxed – but he saw a need to help kids before it was too late. By doing so, he also gave himself a second chance to teach, a profession he’d learned to love many years before.
Carter’s impressive career is the story of a hometown boy made good. Born in Springfield in 1953, Carter’s family lived in an apartment right above the Clark County Jail. Carter remembers growing up a bit like Opie Taylor from “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“The jail was like Mayberry and my mom was Aunt Bee,” Carter says. “My father was a Clark County Sheriff’s Deputy and then he became the jail warden. My mom was a sheriff’s deputy too, but she was the jail matron and cooked for the inmates.”
Understanding the law ran in Carter’s blood, but he didn’t plan to follow in his parents’ footsteps enforcing it. As a National Merit Commended Scholar, Carter had a choice of schools. He selected Concordia and moved into Livedalen 612.
“We were assigned as roommates as freshmen in the fall of 1971 and immediately hit it off,” Don Legreid ’75 says. “He was such a dynamic personality, and still is, and we became best friends and have remained so over the years.”
The guys on the floor had a lot in common, including the love of basketball. Carter, Legreid and several others played intramural basketball and were called the Livedalen “six-pack.” Included in that group was John “Jack” Tunheim ’75, now a federal judge. Tunheim says the great conversations he had with Carter were often punctuated by his sense of humor.
“You could hear him laugh long before he showed up at the door,” Tunheim says.
Carter majored in history and English, planning to become a high school history teacher. Most students on campus knew him because of his outgoing nature. He was a member of Alpha Epsilon Sigma and was a part of the Concerned Black Students group. Through this organization, he met Olympic hero Jesse Owens and while working hospitality for a James Taylor concert he met Taylor and Taylor’s wife at the time, singer Carly Simon.
“I remember talking to her,” Carter says. “She was just a mile a minute talker and really vivacious and I held their baby. James was kind of distant … but I think he was kind of psyching himself up for the concert.”
He student taught at Glyndon-Felton High School and graduated from Concordia in 1975. After graduation, Legreid headed to Drake University Law School in Iowa and suggested to Carter he should consider law. Carter enrolled at Drake and graduated in 1979. Carter taught English at Springfield South High School while he waited for the results of the bar exam. He was hired by Clark County prosecutor James A. Berry and started work in February 1980 as an assistant prosecutor.
Carter tried a variety of cases early in his career. One of his most memorable cases was the murder of Bridget Buxton. Jeffrey Blair, the brother of Buxton’s fiancé, was seen getting into her car the evening she disappeared. The next morning two fishermen found her body near a bridge on County Line Road. The case involved two interesting twists: determining jurisdiction, because the body was discovered on the dividing line between two counties, and the use of DNA as evidence. Blair’s DNA was found both on the victim’s body and inside her car. The year was 1988, and DNA had never been used in a trial in Clark County.
“We had to sell the jury on the effectiveness of DNA testing,” Carter recalls.
Carter won the murder conviction that sent Blair to prison and added the option of DNA testing for many cases to come in
Trials including the Buxton murder were making Carter’s peers sit up and take notice of the hotshot young assistant prosecutor. While some may have thought Carter intimidated people with his tall broad frame and imposing look, it was often the opposite. Steve Schumaker, the Clark County prosecuting attorney during the majority of Carter’s years in that office, said it was Carter’s relationships with people that made him good at his job.
“People knew Darnell was genuine,” says Schumaker, who now works as an assistant attorney general in the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. “Many people would talk to him that wouldn’t talk to the rest of us. A lot of times witnesses would stop at the prosecutor’s table to talk to Darnell. The defense would object, instructing the witnesses to stop being so friendly with Mr. Carter.”
Though he was often easygoing, he could be tough as nails in the courtroom. Carter would soon be put to the test serving his home state.
It was April 11, 1993, and much of the country was focused on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, which had been under siege since February. Now, on Easter Sunday, the small town of Lucasville, Ohio, was about to gain its own notoriety. Inmates at the prison in Lucasville began to riot and took over one of the cellblocks. As the rioters negotiated with authorities on the outside of the prison, Ohio Gov. George Voinovich called in the National Guard to try to take control of the facility. The ordeal lasted 10 days. In that time the inmates killed nine fellow prisoners and strangled a guard.
It was one of the largest prison riots in the United States for the number of prisoners participating, and the legal ramifications were immense. The governor called for a team of 16 of the best prosecutors in the state to try the cases. Carter was one of them.
“That was a very elite group of prosecutors,” Schumaker says. “Lucasville was maximum security − where the worst of the worst were held. Darnell was a big part of trying those cases.”
Carter was first assigned a kidnapping case, but when the lead prosecutor learned how effective he was, he was placed on a murder case. For his work he earned a commendation from the governor and the Gold Star Award from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitations and Corrections.
“I became somewhat of a homicide felony specialist,” Carter says.
During his free time, Carter pursued graduate history studies at The Ohio State University, receiving his master’s degree in 1993.
He tried many more cases for Clark County, and in 2007 received the Outstanding Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Award for the state of Ohio. Carter retired from the prosecutor’s office in 2008 and that same year received The Ohio State University Humanities Alumni Award of Distinction. But he was far from finished working. He found his way back to teaching kids who need him the most.
As a language arts and history tutor at the alternative school, Carter hopes his influence might go beyond the books – helping the students believe in themselves so they don’t take a turn and land on the wrong side of the law.
“A lot of these students already have probation officers. It gives me a clear sense of urgency,” Carter says. “I had too much energy to grab a fly rod and go down to the riverbank.”
In addition to working with the high school students, Darnell and his brother, Mike Carter, teach the class “African Americans in Sports Since 1900” at the University of Dayton.
He comes out of retirement to practice law every once in a while – when he feels strongly about a case – but most of his energy goes into the kids of Springfield, pointing them down the right path.
“I was sorry to see him retire, I thought before his time,” Schumaker says. “He had this calling. He wanted to get into the schools. He’s clearly making a difference where he is now.”