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Posted at 11:39 AM ET, 03/21/2011

Man who claims innocence released from Va. prison

JARRATT, VA. - A Virginia man who prosecutors say was wrongly convicted walked out of prison Monday after spending 27-years behind bars.

Thomas Haynesworth was an 18-year-old high school dropout when he was locked up for a series of 1984 rapes and other attacks in Richmond. On Monday he celebrated his 46th birthday.

“This is the best birthday. Nothing can compare to this,” said Haynesworth, who left the Greensville Correctional Center surrounded by his mother, sisters and other family. He carried his television and one trashbag full of belongings.

“It’s been a long journey,” Haynesworth said. “I missed a lot, reflecting back on what I could have had.”

Although Haynesworth was freed on parole, he remains a convicted criminal. DNA testing exonerated him in two crimes, but he was convicted in two others in which there is no genetic evidence.

Haynesworth claims he is innocent of all the crimes, and is continuing to try to clear his name. The Virginia Court of Appeals is weighing whether to grant him a “Writ of Actual Innocence.”

Haynesworth has the extraordinary backing of two prosecutors and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II. A hearing is scheduled March 30.

“I believe in Mr. Haynesworth’s innocence and I will continue to work toward a complete vindication,” Cuccinelli said in a written statement.

Haynesworth, who was arrested on a cold February afternoon as he walked to a market in his Richmond neighborhood, has consistently told authorities they had the wrong man. But several women ultimately identified him as their attacker.

In 2005, the exonerations of five wrongly-convicted men prompted then-Virginia Gov. Mark. R. Warner ordered a sweeping review of DNA evidence from thousands of old criminal cases. Genetic tests eventually cleared Haynesworth in two rapes, and implicated a convicted rapist.

Prosecutors then re-examined all the cases in which Haynesworth was convicted and concluded he had been wrongly convicted.

But before Monday, Haynesworth had remained behind bars while the Virginia Court of Appeals weighs his claim. So in an unusual move, Gov. Robert F. Mc­Don­nell (R) ­­asked the state parole board to consider Haynesworth’s case. The board voted to grant parole and to release Haynesworth under certain conditions.

From his prison cell, Haynesworth wrote letters to newspapers and law students proclaiming his innocence. He hoped someone would take up his case.

“When you know you’re innocent, it plays on your mind,” Haynesworth said in a recent interview from prison. “It seems like you’re dead and the world still goes on.”

Using technology that was not available in the 1980s, authorities tested the DNA collected from a January 1984 rape for which Haynesworth was convicted. The results cleared him and implicated a convicted rapist named Leon Davis.

The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project took on Haynesworth’s case. DNA testing exonerated Haynesworth in a second rape in which he had been a suspect. Again, Davis was implicated.

Davis lived in the same neighborhood as Haynesworth. They resembled each other and have the same blood type. Davis has declined to be interviewed.

In light of the DNA evidence, prosecutors agreed to re-examine the cases in which there is no genetic evidence to test. They pored over the case files, and Haynesworth passed two polygraph examinations.

The Virginia Court of Appeals has scheduled a March 30 hearing to consider Haynesworth’s innocence claim. But McDonnell said that “in light of the unique circumstances” of the case, he asked the parole board to review it.

Mc­Don­nell also said in a statement that he will consider a petition for pardon.

Haynesworth said that, over the years, his friends in prison told him that he’d have a better shot of being granted parole if he admitted guilt, but he has refused. The parole board most recently turned him down this past summer.

“An inmate I knew, he said you have to go in and say you did it even though you didn’t do it,” Haynesworth recalled. “I said I’m not going to say something I didn’t do.”

Haynesworth said one of the first things he would do on the outside is visit the grave of his brother, who died while Haynesworth was behind bars. He said he hopes to get a job as a mechanic. He’s planning to move in with his mother.

“I’ll just be at home waiting for him to walk through the door,” Dolores Haynesworth said.

[This post has been updated.]

By  |  11:39 AM ET, 03/21/2011

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