Christmas came early for Thomas Haynesworth, but he's not complaining.
After all, he waited 27 years for the Big Day to arrive.
It actually arrived on December 6, when Haynesworth was exonerated after
27 years in prison and over eight months on parole as a registered sex
The Innocence Project and partnering attorneys at the Mid-Atlantic
Innocence Project fought for years to prove that Haynesworth was innocent
of all three sexual assaults for which he was convicted. Ultimately, several
rounds of DNA testing, multiple polygraph tests and an extensive
prosecutorial review of the evidence were required.
But the massive injustice that Haynesworth and his family endured is now,
finally, over. Haynesworth was wrongfully convicted at 18 years old with no
criminal record when a witness misidentified him as her assailant. DNA and
other evidence now links all three crimes to a serial rapist, known as the
"black ninja," who continued assaulting women after Haynesworth had been
Haynesworth was exonerated of a series of sexual assaults that occurred in
1984 that DNA and other evidence now prove were committed by the self-
proclaimed "Black Ninja" rapist.
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Richmond Commonwealth Attorney
Michael Herring and Henrico Commonwealth Attorney Wade Kizer, joined
the Innocence Project, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and Hogan
Lovells US LLP in seeking the writ of actual innocence for non-biological
evidence that was granted by the court today.
Haynesworth, who was released to parole in March thanks to intervention by
Gov. Bob McDonnell, served nearly 27 years in prison for the sexual
assaults and had to register as a sex offender and abide by strict conditions
of parole since his release.
"This day was a long time coming for Mr. Haynesworth and his family,"
said Shawn Armbrust, Executive Director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence
Project. "After serving nearly 27 years for crimes that he didn't commit, Mr.
Haynesworth has had to register as a sex offender and abide by degrading
conditions while the Court of Appeals took nearly nine months to conclude
that the Attorney General and the prosecutors were right that Mr.
Haynesworth didn't commit these crimes."
Peter Neufeld, Co-Director of the Innocence Project added, "This is the first
time in America where the Attorney General and two local prosecutors
joined us in seeking an exoneration, yet it nevertheless took nine months,
two trips to the Court of Appeals, and six judges to secure relief that was
obvious to everyone."
Today's decision, which was decided 6-4, marks only the second time that a
Virginia court has exonerated someone through a writ of actual innocence
for non-biological evidence since the statue passed in 2004. Unlike this case
where the decision was based on factual evidence of innocence, the first case
was decided on legal reasoning. (The court concluded that the gun in
question in that case was not a gun under the law.)
"This case is yet another tragic example of misidentification, which occurs
far too often, especially in cross-racial crimes," said Olga Akselrod, a Staff
Attorney with the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the Cardozo
School of Law. "Fortunately the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice
Services has developed a new model policy for police identification
procedures that would go a long way toward preventing this type of
injustice, and we urge the Virginia State Crime Commission to recommend
legislation that would require that police departments statewide to adopt this
Between January 3 and February 1, 1984, five white women were the
victims of rapes or attempted rapes by a young black male in the East End of
Richmond, a small area overlapping both the City of Richmond and Henrico
County. Haynesworth, an 18-year-old Richmond resident with no prior
record, was arrested February 5, 1984, after one of the victims identified
him. The other four victims later picked his photo out of a photo array.
Haynesworth was eventually convicted for crimes that occurred on January
3, January 30 and February 1, 1984 and sentenced to 36 years in prison. He
was acquitted of a crime that occurred on January 21, and the charges were
dropped in a January 27 incident.
Rapes in the same general area continued throughout 1984 after
Haynesworth was arrested, with more than 10 young white women being
attacked by a young black male who began to refer to himself to his victims
as the "Black Ninja."
On December 19, police arrested Leon Davis, who was charged with about a
dozen rapes that took place during the last nine months of 1984. Davis was
eventually convicted of at least three of those crimes and sentenced to
multiple life terms.
After Gov. Mark Warner ordered a review of cases between 1973 and 1988,
it was discovered that the semen recovered from the victim of
Haynesworth's January 3 rape conviction matched Davis, not Haynesworth.
With this knowledge, Haynesworth's legal team reached out to the
Richmond and Henrico Commonwealth's Attorneys to review
Haynesworth's other convictions. While there was no physical evidence for
his two remaining convictions, DNA testing proved that Davis was also the
perpetrator in the case for which Haynesworth was acquitted.
The Richmond and Henrico Commonwealth's Attorneys conducted an
extensive investigation and eventually concluded that Davis, not
Haynesworth, was responsible for the other two crimes. These crimes
matched the same modus operandi as the other rapes committed by Davis.
Haynesworth also passed polygraph tests about both of the cases that were
administered in the presence of the respective Commonwealth's Attorneys.
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli also conducted an investigation and joined
in Haynesworth's petition for a writ of actual innocence for non-biological
evidence. The case was argued before a three-member panel of the Court of
Appeals on March 30, 2011. In an unusual move, the panel ruled in July
that it would not issue a decision but would instead send the case to be heard
before the full Court of Appeals.
In a related development, the Innocence Project last week asked a Texas
Court to convene a court of inquiry to investigate possible misconduct by the
prosecutor in the case of Michael Morton, who was wrongfully imprisoned
for nearly 25 years for the murder of his wife.
The Innocence Project charges that former Williamson County District
Attorney Ken Anderson, now a sitting judge, failed to turn over substantial
evidence of Morton's innocence to Morton's attorneys at trial. This evidence
included a statement from the victim's mother that the couple's three-year-
old son, who witnessed the murder, told her that his father was not at home
when the crime occurred, as well as other evidence pointing to a third party
Soon after Morton was freed in October, the Innocence Project and other
partnering attorneys initiated an investigation into Morton's wrongful
conviction. Now, at the culmination of that investigation, the Innocence
Project has submitted a report to the Texas Court calling for a Court of
Inquiry to investigate allegations that Anderson committed intentional
The Innocence Project fought prosecutors for six years to obtain post-
conviction DNA testing for Morton. Finally, on October 4, Morton was
cleared after DNA tests on a bloody bandana found near the crime scene
didn't match him and instead implicated Mark Allen Norwood who has also
been linked to the subsequent murder of Debra Masters Baker.
"The prosecution's complete disregard for the truth in this case is stunning,"
said Nina Morrison, a Senior Staff Attorney with the Innocence Project.
"Rather than try to get to the bottom of what really happened, the
prosecution went to great lengths to keep evidence pointing to Mr. Morton's
innocence from his lawyers, blatantly ignoring direct orders from the judge
who conducted a review of the evidence."
This good-news story requires no post script. Freeing falsely imprisoned
men and women is what The Innocence Project, and similar organizations
across the US, does. And there is probably no tougher job for a lawyer than
convincing a prosecutor he's made a mistake. Organizations like The
Innocence Project have been vastly successful, having freed more than 200
prisoners thus far. Can you imagine the legal and emotional value of
working on one of these cases to the students of the Cardozo School of Law,
who do a lot of the heavy lifting under lawyers' supervision.
But celebrations of their victories in court are short-lived. They're just too
focused on the reality that, for every prisoner falsely imprisoned, exonerated
and freed, there are a dozen more still locked up and waiting.