After 27 Years in Prison, Innocent Man Exonerated of Rape Charges

Thomas E. Haynesworth spent 27 years in prison for rapes he did not commit.

Posted: 12/07/2011 10:37 PM EST

(Photo: Courtesy Washington Examiner)

A Virginia man’s name was finally cleared of wrongdoing on Tuesday after he had spent 27 years in prison for rapes he did not commit.

 

Thomas E. Haynesworth, 46, who was wrongfully convicted in a series of rapes and other assaults in Richmond and Henrico County in 1984, was granted a writ of actual innocence in a majority decision by the Virginia Court of Appeals on Tuesday. It is the first time the state had done so in a rape case without the certainty of DNA evidence.

 

“It’s a blessing,’’ Haynesworth said at a press conference on Tuesday, reports The Washington Post. “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.”

 

On Feb. 5, 1984, Haynesworth, then an 18-year-old with no criminal record, was walking to a grocery store to pick up bread and sweet potatoes for his mother when a woman who had been raped told police that he was her attacker. In the end, five women misidentified him as their assailant. He would be tried four times, convicted in three cases and acquitted in one. Prosecutors dismissed one case.

 

In 2009, DNA testing showed Haynesworth did not commit one of the rapes and revealed the true assailant as serial rapist Leon W. Davis Jr., who lived in the same East Richmond neighborhood as Haynesworth in 1984. Adding to the confusion, Davis and Haynesworth shared a resemblance and had the same blood type.

 

Historically, prisoners were barred from introducing new evidence more than three weeks after sentencing, but after DNA testing resulted in hundreds of exonerations nationwide, Virginia lawmakers moved to allow courts to reconsider guilt based first on genetic evidence before other forms such as ballistics or recanted testimony.

 

There was no biological evidence available in Haynesworth’s other two convictions, but in the case for which Haynesworth was acquitted, there was, implicating Davis and proving that two of the women had confused an innocent man for a brutal rapist. Davis is currently serving out multiple life sentences for his crimes.

 

Throughout the nightmarish ordeal, Haynesworth had the solid support of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli as well as the backing from lawyers at the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, who concluded that he was misidentified on that fateful day.

 

"I feel the necessity … to share with the eight million people of Virginia what I shared with Mr. Haynesworth the first day that I met him, personally, especially now that it is official, and that is to say, 'I'm sorry,'" a tearful Cuccinelli told reporters.

 

Although Haynesworth was released on parole in March, it is only now that he is truly free. His parole restrictions have been lifted and his name taken off the Virginia sex-offender registry.

 

In a statement on Tuesday, Gov. Bob McDonnell said he hoped the ruling would provide Haynesworth and his family with “finality and the ability to close this painful chapter in their lives."

 

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