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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.

 

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Hey Norm says:

    “…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…”

    Exactly…this type of thing is the biggest argument against the death penalty…and thus makes it one of the worst things Government does, or can do.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Too bad the rapes did not happen in Texas because noted expert Gov Rick Perry has told us all that the Texas courts never get it wrong.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  3. Franklin says:

    Sometimes justice takes a long time, sometimes it never happens. It’s good to see it eventually worked this time. It definitely sucked for Haynesworth, but it’s all over now.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  4. OldSouth says:

    So good, at long last, to see the correct result obtained. Also good to know he wasn’t executed — i.e. murdered — for crimes he clearly did not commit.

    A few questions do come to mind in the wake of this, however.

    1. Does he receive compensation from the State of Virginia, which wrongfully used the full weight of its legal system to crush his young life?

    2. What of the group of lawyers, judges and cops that seemed to work in perfect harmony to perform this crime against this gent? No law licenses go under scrutiny, no badges or pensions pulled, no judicial disciplinary panel to act against those who victimized this man? I know you’re an attorney, so this is not directed at you: However, I have met a number of people in your trade who would have happily sent the man to his death, fabricating and/or suppressing evidence as needed at every juncture, and never missed a moment’s sleep. Truth, per se, never seems to enter their internal mental processes. And yet, they remain immune from any consequence of their behaviors–unless of course they are stupid enough to be caught. What would happen to our criminal justice system if the prosecutors knew they were betting their law licenses and houses every time they brought a case before the judge? Would this not induce a bit of restraint and caution?

    3. My dear God in heaven, how many more Haynesworths are in our prisons still?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  5. Anon says:

    Just think about all the cases of wrongful conviction where there is no exculpatory DNA evidence. Truly shameful when there is such a large body of research that’s been around for decades showing the unreliability of eyewitness testimony.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. Jeremy says:

    The entire judicial system is screwed up. I saw the Frontline videos on plea bargains and false confessions and eyewitnesses, and it not only turned me into an anti-death penalty guy, it really showed me that there is no justice in our justice system.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  7. Jeremy says:

    @OldSouth:

    Agreed completely. He should be compensated at the median Virginian salary, averaged over his 27 years, and the prosecutors behind this should be investigated and their law licenses pulled if necessary.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Franklin:

    It definitely sucked for Haynesworth, but it’s all over now.

    It will never be “all over now” for Haynesworth. He will carry it with him to his grave

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  9. I must say that my love-hate relationship with Ken Cuccinelli continues.

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