In a meeting at his Richmond office, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli personally apologized to Thomas Haynesworth on Tuesday, telling the man who was released from prison Monday after serving 27 years for a string of rapes and assaults that prosecutors now believe he did not commit that Virginia’s justice system had failed him.
Cuccinelli (R) said he has closely reviewed every bit of evidence in Haynesworth’s case and has come to believe that the Richmond man did not commit any of the crimes of which he was accused — not two rapes in which DNA evidence has now implicated another man and not two others for which DNA evidence does not exist.
“It almost brings me to tears to think of the 27 years,” Cuccinelli said in an interview. “As I said to him, ‘I’m sorry doesn't do it, on behalf of the people of Virginia.’ But there isn’t much more. I can’t get those years back.”
Haynesworth was an 18-year-old high school dropout when was arrested and charged with rape. He had no criminal record and has maintained his innocence ever since. He was paroled Monday after his case was reviewed by the state’s parole board at the request of Gov. Bob McDonnell (R). He will argue to the Virginia Court of Appeals on March 30 that a court should declare him innocent and clear his name.
Cuccinelli said Haynesworth was reserved and quiet in their meeting.
“I think he’s shell-shocked chocked about it all,” he said.
Though he himself was in high school when Haynesworth was convicted, as a representative of the Virginia’s justice system, Cuccinelli said he feels “very guilty that the system failed him as it did. ”
“It’s the worst kind of error we can have — that is, putting an innocent person in jail,” he said. “It’s much worse than letting a guilty person go free.”
For years, there was no way for those in Virginia who believed they’d been wrongly accused of crimes to get a court to review evidence that had surfaced after their conviction. And generations of state attorneys general argued that inmates should take such evidence to the governor and seek a pardon if they believed it showed that they were innocent — most famously in the early 1990s, when Attorney General Mary Sue Terry (D) once argued after a conviction in a death row case that “evidence of innocence is irrelevant.”
But in 2004, the state passed a new law that allows inmates to present new, non-DNA evidence to try to prove they were wrongly convicted. Cuccinelli’s outspoken defense of Haynesworth has earned him broad praise from lawyers and others who work with inmates who say they’ve been wrongly accused.
Cuccinelli recalled Wednesday that one of his first votes as a state senator was a committee action that helped the bill to the floor of the Senate in 2003. The bill died in the House that year but passed the following year.
Cuccinelli said his office is not unanimous about his decision to back Haynesworth so strongly — but he is firm.
“The system hasn’t declared him innocent yet, but I’m convinced of it, and I’m pursuing very hard his exoneration,” he said.