In DNA reprieves, guilt from another source

March 22, 2011

Twenty-seven years ago, the Virginia woman sat in a courtroom, swore to tell the truth and told a jury that a stranger named Thomas Haynesworth raped her.

She was so sure. The sight of him made her tremble.

She helped send him to prison.

But she was wrong.

“For so long, his face and his name were where I directed my anger,” the Henrico County woman said in a recent interview. “That’s gone now. He’s not the name. He’s not the face.

“Now when I hear his name, I feel guilt. Obsessive guilt.”

DNA evidence has proven that Haynesworth, who was an 18-year-old high school dropout when he was arrested, did not rape the woman.

Haynesworth, now 46, was released from prison Monday on parole and is fighting to clear his name. DNA exonerated him in a second rape as well. But he was convicted of two other attacks for which there is no genetic evidence to test.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) and two prosecutors, who have become convinced that Haynesworth was wrongly convicted in all of the attacks, are supporting his petition to the Virginia Court of Appeals for a writ of actual innocence.

So is the Henrico rape victim.

“It’s been 27 years,” she said. “I wish that somehow all that time could be given back to him. But it’s impossible.”

The Henrico woman, now 47, got married since the 1984 attack at the Richmond day care where she worked. She raised two children and has a successful career. The Washington Post generally does not name sexual assault victims without their consent.

Advances in genetic testing have led to the exonerations of 267 people across the United States who were convicted of crimes they did not commit. In more than three-quarters of those cases, a victim or witness identified the wrong person, according to the Innocence Project.

For men exonerated in rape cases, there is the indescribable loss of years — even decades — of life. For the women who identified them, there is a different pain. They are faced not only with the trauma of having been raped, but also the confusion and anguish of knowing they helped send an innocent man to prison.

“While trying to do the right thing, we got it wrong,” said Jennifer Thompson, who was raped in 1984 in North Carolina and wrongly identified a man named Ronald Cotton. “I felt I had become the offender and Ronald was the victim. I had failed everybody.”

Thompson, who co-wrote a book about her experience, said people lashed out at her in cyberspace, saying she should slit her wrists and slit her throat. Some called her racist. She has befriended the Henrico woman and four others who were attacked and made the same mistake.

“There is no support group for rape victims who wrongly identify people,” Thompson said.

A search for red flags

On the day that two detectives showed up at the Henrico woman’s house in March 2009, she felt a rush of fear. Haynesworth, she thought, must have made parole.

But the officers started talking about DNA and evidence. She began to understand what they were saying: DNA had cleared Haynesworth and implicated a convicted rapist named Leon Davis.

Suddenly her mind was transported back to one of the most painful days of her life, a day she spent years trying to put behind her. But now the man she long thought of as a brutal attacker, a criminal, had become a victim, too.

She wept. For the first time, she told her children that she had been raped. She wanted to reach out to friends, but it never felt like the right time to broach the subject. And she struggled to remember each detail of her identification of Haynesworth.

“I’ve gone through it 100 times in my head,” she said. “Was there any point where there was a clue? Did something not make sense to me that should have been a red flag?”

She has found none.

She first saw her attacker when he emerged from behind a set of doors early one morning in 1984, in the Richmond day-care center where she worked. She was the first employee to arrive that day, and she had just flicked on the lights and was settling in.

The man wore a blue ski mask, but his face was exposed, she later told a jury. He pulled a knife out from one of his gloves and attacked.

She noticed details. She told jurors the rapist’s skin was “a golden color.” His beige coat had stripes on the sleeves. The gloves were lined with sheepskin. He was about the same height as she, with her one-inch heels on.

When she identified Haynesworth, there was no doubt in her mind.

Then in 2005, the exonerations of five men prompted Virginia to launch a massive reexamination of DNA evidence in old criminal cases using the latest technology. Her attack was among them.

“If there wasn’t DNA, I would still be saying he was the one who did it,” the woman said.

Haynesworth said he has no anger toward the women who wrongly identified him.

“They have been through a tragedy,” he said. “What happened to them shouldn’t have happened to them. I blame the person who did this, Mr. Davis.”

Davis, who is serving multiple life sentences for a series of rapes, has not been charged in the crimes for which Haynesworth was convicted. He declined to be interviewed.

‘I began to fall apart’

When a rape victim points to her attacker in court, it is among the most powerful testimony jurors can hear. But mistaken eyewitness testimony has played a key role in most wrongful convictions, according to the New York-based Innocence Project.

A study of those exonerations showed that the police identification process often unintentionally swayed the victims toward a certain choice, said Brandon L. Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor.

A well-meaning detective may offer a reassuring comment that cues a victim, Garrett said. One innocent Virginia man imprisoned for a rape was mistakenly picked from a photo lineup. His photo was the only one in color, which could have influenced the victim’s choice.

“Our memory isn’t like a videotape,” Garrett said.

It is not clear why the women picked Haynesworth. But he and Davis lived in the same neighborhood and resembled each other. Sometimes they were mistaken for each other.

The Henrico woman remembers the day detectives showed her photos of several men. When she saw Haynesworth’s, she was certain he was the rapist. She hesitated, dreading the prospect of a trial. But she didn’t want more women to be hurt.

“I remember just wanting it all to go away,” she said, “and then I went ahead and identified him.”

The first time she saw Haynesworth in court, she broke down.

“I began to fall apart. I was shaking, I was crying,” she said. A burly detective stood near to comfort her.

Later, she saw Davis’s photo in the newspaper: “Nothing hit me,” she said.

Lawyer Trip Chalkley remembers meeting Haynesworth in 1984. The young man said he didn’t do it. Chalkley, his attorney, believed him.

Chalkley, now Hanover County’s top prosecutor, is convinced that Haynesworth is innocent. Still, he said, sometimes eyewitness testimony is the best — or the only — evidence prosecutors have.

“If you come to Hanover County and you get raped and you identify someone,” he said, “I’m going to let a jury decide.”

A hope to rebuild a life

The Henrico woman ticks off the milestones of the past 27 years of her life. Marriage, raising children, holidays, family vacations. Haynesworth, she thinks, has been robbed of all of that.

“All these things go through your head,” she said. “The Mother’s Days that he’s missed. Just thinking what would I do if my son was torn away from me, or if my daughter was torn away from me.”

Authorities asked whether she wants Davis prosecuted. Since he’s in prison for life, she doesn’t want to relive the attack in court. “If there were a chance he would get out, I probably would,” she said. “At this point, I’m not sure it’s worth the journey.”

She knows that Haynesworth has said he feels no anger toward her, and she said knowing that comforts her. She knows he wants to get a job as a mechanic. And she hopes to meet him someday.

“I hope that he is able to pick up his life and have nothing but great things happen from this point on out,” she said.

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