Posted: 1:34 p.m. Friday, June 27, 2014

Ohio woman with local ties at center of another big news story

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Ohio woman with local ties at center of another big news story photo
Melinda Elkins Dawson (right), of Ohio, who is one of Hicks Babies and organizer, gets a hug from Connie Sayers of Copperhill, Tenn., who is a possible relative of a Hicks baby, after Sayers had her DNA swab sampling done at Ocoee River Inn in Ducktown, Tenn. on Saturday, June 21, 2014. Melinda Elkins Dawson is one of about 200 babies who were sold from a clinic in McCaysville, Ga., in the 1950s and 1960s. Known as the Hicks Babies or the Hicks Adoptees, about 27 people, hoping to find their biological parents and get family medical histories, gathered Saturday in Ducktown, Tenn., for a DNA sample collection. Dawson worked with Ohio-based DNA Diagnostics Center to arrange free cheek-swab sampling Saturday at Ocoee River Inn in Ducktown, Tenn., a few miles from where the clinic was located. HYOSUB SHIN /ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

By Mary McCarty

Contributing Writer

Most people never become involved in a single national news story. Melinda Elkins Dawson is now on her second.

“For someone who doesn’t like the spotlight, the spotlight keeps finding me,” she lamented.

Dawson made national headlines in 2005 when she proved, through DNA evidence, that her husband, Clarence Elkins, had been wrongfully convicted in the murder of her mother.

Now Dawson has turned her advocate’s zeal to another cause celebre: the infamous Hicks baby-selling case. In 1963, Dawson was sold to her adoptive parents, Judith Johnson and Homer Sheets Jr., for $1,000 from the black-market Hicks Clinic in McCaysville, Ga. “My parents were told they had 12 hours to get the baby, and they were instructed to leave town as soon as possible,” Dawson said.

Dawson is one of about 200 so-called “Hicks babies,” who were sold in the ’50s and ’60s from Dr. Thomas Hicks’ clinic. Her birth certificate was falsified, listing her adoptive parents as her birth parents. She is scheduled to tell her story Sunday during “The CBS Evening News” airing at 6:30.

Since her mother’s murder June 7, 1998, Dawson can no longer ask about the day she came into the family. “My mother did tell me that she saw my birth mother that day, and that she had auburn hair and looked just like me,” Dawson recalled.

Dawson has so many questions about her past, her quirky personality.

She wonders where her crusading spirit came from. And what about that gene for auburn hair and blue eyes? How did her two boys grow up to be 6’5”?

She was raised in a laid-back family. She wonders where she acquired the fierce determination to Clarence, imprisoned for more than seven years for a murder he didn’t commit. (Clarence and Melinda Elkins have since divorced and both have remarried.)

When her grandson was born in December with a serious stomach problem, which was corrected by surgery, Dawson felt compelled to revisit the Hicks case. “I know it’s not my fault but I feel guilty for not being able to give medical information to my kids and grandkids,” she said.

The two central tragedies of her life, while unrelated, have taught lessons that proved invaluable to each situation. At the insistence of her mother, Dawson became involved in the Hicks controversy in 1998, when mother and daughter appeared on “The Maury Povich Show” to talk about the illegal adoption.

A short time later her mother was murdered and her husband imprisoned for the crime. “The Hicks case went on the back burner,” Dawson recalled. “But it did teach me something about DNA that was very valuable in solving Clarence’s case.”

In 2002, Dawson learned that her mother’s former neighbor, Earl Mann, had been sentenced to seven years in prison for raping three girls. Dawson’s 6-year-old niece had been raped in the attack that killed her mother, and it was her eyewitness testimony alone that led to Clarence Elkins’ murder conviction. In the summer of 2005, Mann was coincidentally living in the same housing pod as Elkins. A cigarette butt procured by Elkins provided conclusive evidence that Earl Mann, not Clarence Elkins, was the killer. He was released from Mansfield Correctional Institution Dec. 15, 2005.

After living in the Miami Valley for many years, Melinda and her husband, Patrick Dawson, who grew up in New Lebanon, moved recently back to her home town of Louisville, near Canton, to be closer to her three grandchildren. “It’s really important for her to do this,” Patrick said. “With the grandbabies, it is very important to find some type of heritage.”

With the wrongful-imprisonment case finally behind her, Dawson once again can take up her mother’s cause: The Hicks babies.

Dawson organized a DNA testing last weekend for Hicks babies and their potential family members in Ducktown, Tenn. — just across the state border from McCaysville — hoping to reunite long-lost families. About 30 people turned out for the cotton-swab testing, performed free by DNA Diagnostics Center, based in Fairfield, Ohio.

“We are all in our 50s and 60s now, and we don’t have much time left if we want to find our birth parents,” Dawson explained. “My main objective is to find my birth parents, and any siblings, and to know my heritage.”

She has marshalled everything she learned about DNA testing from the Clarence Elkins case, as well as her considerable media savvy.

‘She is a tough lady,’ said Dr. Michael Baird, chief science officer and laboratory director for DNA Diagnostics Center. “She has been through a lot and seemed like a very grounded, focused person who wanted to get to the truth.”

In 1987, Baird testified at the first trial in the United States involving DNA testing. The Hicks babies are one more example of the power of DNA testing in our lives, he said: “Clarence’s case has reinforced to her that DNA is a positive tool, and she is hoping the same approach will help to reunite families,” Baird said. “That is why Melinda is so passionate about this.”

Concurred Dawson, “I want to know where I come from who I look like what the (circumstances) were and go on with my life. This is my personal quest. My mom Judith was my mom, hands down. I would like my birth mother to be a part of my life, but nothing will ever replace my adoptive parents.”

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows Dawson that she remains a stubborn crusader for justice. Almost anyone else would have given up during her long quest for justice for Clarence Elkins. And since his release, she continues to volunteer with Ohioans to Stop Executions, speaking out against the death penalty, and to work pro bono on wrongful conviction cases.

If one family is reunited through DNA testing, Baird believes, more Hicks babies and their parents will be encouraged to come forward.

Dawson wants that not merely for herself, but for all the families.

“I hope we all find something out,” she said. “We deserve some answers.”

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