This Week in Innocence

Friday, February 4th, 2011

In 1984, Thomas Haynesworth, then 18 and with no prior criminal record, was arrested after one victim in a series of five rapes over a month-long period around Richmond, Virginia, spotted him on the street and identified him as her assailant. The other four women eventually identified him in a photo lineup. He was convicted of three rapes, acquitted of a fourth, and the charges were dropped in the fifth. He has been in prison ever since. The victim IDs were the only evidence against him.

The problem is, the so-called “Black Ninja” rapes, which bore a close resemblance with those for which Hayneworth was convicted, continued well after Haynesworth was in cutsody. Nearly a year and at least a dozen rapes later, police arrested Leon Davis for those subsequent rapes. Davis was charged with 12 rapes, was convicted of three, and was sentenced to multiple life terms.

In 2005 Virginia Gov. Mark Warner ordered a review of thousands of rape cases after five men convicted of the crime were exonerated by DNA evidence. That review discovered that one of the three rapes for which Haynesworth had been convicted was committed by Davis. The two are similar in appearance.

Davis has always maintained his innocence. The problem for him is that there’s no testable DNA remaining from the other two rapes for which he was convicted.

At this point, the prosecutor’s office in Richmond believes Hayneworth is innocent, as do prosecutors in Henrico County, the site of the other rape. So does Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a guy who ran on law-and-order credentials.

But as the Washington Post points out, even when defense attorneys and prosecutors agree that a man has been wrongly convicted, the courts aren’t obliged to agree.

The Virginia Court of Appeals, which considers so-called Writs of Actual Innocence, has only once exonerated a convict in a case that didn’t have the certainty of genetic evidence. The court must be convinced that no jury would convict Haynesworth if it heard all the facts known today.

One victim is advocating for Haynesworth’s release. But another, a woman in a case without DNA, remains convinced that she identified the right man.

“Courts are very reluctant to reopen criminal convictions, for reasons of finality and because they worry that the new evidence may be less reliable than the evidence available at the time of trial,” said Brandon L. Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor who has studied exonerations.

It’s an impossibly high standard, and one that would likely have denied nearly all the 266 people exonerated by DNA testing had that testing not been available. But the flaws in the system that allowed those convictions to happen are obviously just as prevelant in cases where there’s no genetic material to test. Perhaps the most important thing DNA testing has shown us is that it’s time to rethink the premium that appeals courts put on finality.

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11 Responses to “This Week in Innocence”

  1. #1 |  Mattocracy | 

    So unless you can prove that you aren’t a criminal, you’re guilty until further notice.

  2. #2 |  Marty | 

    stunning. a potentially innocent man is losing any chance of freedom because of bureaucracy.

  3. #3 |  SJE | 

    Yep, actual innocence is apparently irrelevant. Of course, if Cucinelli thinks this man is innocent, why not talk to his buddy, the Gov, and have this man pardoned. It would take about 10 minutes.

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  5. #5 |  perlhaqr | 

    Fuck.

    That’s about all I can say about that. I’m just totally gobsmacked stupid wordless over the concept of what it would even be like to be released after 26, 27 years in prison for a crime you didn’t commit. 60% of your life to date spent behind bars, wrongfully. What the hell would you even do after that?

  6. #6 |  croaker | 

    @5 Some would earn the time served by going after those to put him in the joint to begin with. I certainly would be very temped to do that if I were in that situation.

  7. #7 |  Gerald A | 

    And we’re all surprised that right and wrong has any place in a modern court room?

  8. #8 |  Joe | 

    So finality trumps making sure an innocent man does not serve time for a crime he did not commit? We are not talking the evidence is slightly in his favor, we are talking it is highly probable he is innocent.

    Time to change Virginia law in this regard.

  9. #9 |  Kirk | 

    In all the concern about DNA results showing people to be innocent, I find it interesting that nobody ever seems to look that deeply into the science involved.

    Sure, if they find a match for another individual, that’s good evidence that someone else committed the crime. However, when you exclude someone because “…the DNA obtained from the scene did not match the suspect…”, things are not anywhere nearly as clear-cut.

    There’s a phenomena known as genetic chimerism, where an individual may have more than one cell line making up their body’s tissues. We really don’t know how prevalent this phenomenal is, or whether or not we can really rely on genetic sampling taken from buccal swabs, when the evidence we’re looking at is seminal fluid.

    Say that you test your suspect, and turn up a different genetic profile than the fluids left on your victim. All the other evidence points at him, but the DNA exonerates him. Unknown to you, however, is that your suspect is a genetic chimera, and his germ cells came from a different cell line than the tissues making up his cheeks… Guess what? You just exonerated a guilty man.

    DNA testing needs to be looked at a lot more carefully than it is. I’d be very cautious about these “miracle exonerations” until we’re actually matching tissue types to tissue types. Show me that the suspect’s seminal fluids don’t match, when the evidence is left-behind seminal fluids, and I’d be a lot more trusting when it comes to exonerating him. Even then, there’s some very scarily poor work being done by the forensics people in these things.

  10. #10 |  Irving Washington | 

    This is a time to use a pardon. Fast, cheap, and completely obviates the need to consider the lack of evidence in the two other rapes.

    Not to preach to the choir, but this is another reminder that eyewitness testimony is one of the weakest forms of evidence, especially when that eyewitness was under the stress of being the actual victim at the time of the alleged crime. Every state of which I’m aware allows for felony convictions to be based on the identification testimony of just one witness, and while I don’t feel the need to engage in the hypothetical battle of when that could be appropriate, from a practical standpoint, I think jurors ought to be trained to acquit in all cases in which there is a single-witness identification by the victim. This does, in fact, change the evidentiary game in sex crimes, and while I don’t want to make the lives of rape victims any harder, I want to send innocent men to jail even less.

  11. #11 |  Ken Hagler | 

    I realize we’ll never know now, but I wouldn’t be _at all_ surprised to learn that the cops prodded the witnesses to identify this particular guy. I’ve met a number of black men who were scooped up by the cops on the “first young black man they came across” principle, and then had the cops try to pressure vulnerable people (children, victims of recent violent attacks, etc.) into identifying them as the perpetrator. In all of those cases the intended witness refused to go along with the cops–but of course, if they had, those men would have been in jail and not available for me to hear from.

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