Virginia Man Wrongfully Convicted Of Rape Exonerated After 27 Years
A Virginia man has been exonerated after 27 years after it was determined that the eyewitness identifications that convicted him were faulty:
RICHMOND — A Virginia appeals court declared Thomas Haynesworth an innocent man Tuesday, clearing his name and acknowledging that he spent 27 years behind bars for rapes he did not commit.
It is the first time the state has issued a “writ of actual innocence” in a rape case without the certainty of DNA evidence. Haynesworth, 46, was supported by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) and two state prosecutors — all of whom concluded that he was mistakenly identified by a rape victim as he walked to a Richmond market for sweet potatoes and bread one February afternoon in 1984.
“It’s a blessing,” Haynesworth said as he stood with his attorneys and Cuccinelli. “There are a lot of people behind the scenes who believed in me. Twenty-seven years, I never gave up. I kept pushing. I ain’t give up hope.
“I am very happy. Me and my family can finally put this behind us, and I can go on with my life. And I can finally vote.”
The case shows how far Virginia has come in allowing convicts to argue their innocence. Historically, prisoners were barred from introducing new evidence more than three weeks after sentencing, and in the 1990s, then-Attorney General Mary Sue Terry (D) famously said, “Evidence of innocence is irrelevant.” But when DNA testing resulted in hundreds of exonerations nationwide, it prompted Virginia lawmakers to open the door for courts to reconsider guilt based first on genetic evidence and later on other evidence, such as recanted testimony, fingerprints or ballistics.
Although Haynesworth was released on parole in March, he has not been fully free. Now, his photo has been taken off the state’s sex offender registry. He is allowed to use the Internet. Finally, he can take a woman on a date without first introducing her to a parole officer.
“I have never heard him this excited, including the day he was released from jail,” said Shawn Armbrust, one of his attorneys and director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. “Everybody, the law and the government, says he did not do this. Before there was always an asterisk.”
The facts of the case, and the events that led to Haynesworth’s exoneration are worth noting:
Haynesworth was 18 when he was arrested as he headed to the market to buy groceries for Sunday dinner. A woman who had been attacked days earlier spotted him and told a police officer that he was the assailant.
Haynesworth told police that they had the wrong man. But five women ultimately identified him as their attacker. He was convicted in three attacks and acquitted in one; one case was dropped.
For years, Haynesworth languished in prison. He earned his GED and studied auto mechanics, welding and masonry.
But he never gave up trying to prove his innocence. When he came before the parole board he didn’t apologize — despite advice from fellow inmates that it might earn him an early release, he said. He wrote letters to “60 Minutes,” local newspapers and law students asking for help.
A turning point came in 2005 when the exonerations of five wrongly convicted men prompted then-Gov. Mark R. Warner to order a sweeping review of thousands of cases with DNA evidence. Haynesworth’s case was among them.
Using technology that wasn’t available in the 1980s, authorities tested semen collected in a January 1984 rape for which Haynesworth had been convicted. It cleared him and pointed to a convicted rapist named Leon Davis.
The Innocence Project took on Haynesworth’s case, and DNA was tested in another rape case in which Haynesworth was a suspect. Again, he was cleared, and Davis, who is serving a life sentence for different crimes, was implicated.
Haynesworth’s attorneys were convinced that Davis, who lived in the same neighborhood and resembled Haynesworth, was the sole attacker. But in the two remaining cases, there was no genetic evidence to test.
Virginia prosecutors agreed to delve back into the case. During a months-long investigation, authorities re-interviewed Haynesworth and the victims and reexamined the files. Haynesworth passed two polygraph examinations. In the end, prosecutors were also convinced that all the victims had identified the wrong man.
Haynesworth’s fate isn’t unusual. It’s fairly well-established that incorrect witness identifications are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions in the United States, largely because juries tend to place far more weight on such identifications than the evidence would suggest they are entitled to. Earlier this year, in fact, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered sweeping changes in the manner in which these identifications are handled by police, and in court, in an effort to reduce the possibility of error.
I guess the good thing for Haynesworth is that he wasn’t sent to Death Row all those years ago, because he wouldn’t be alive to see this day.