Man imprisoned for 27 years hopes that some evidence is enough for freedom

February 1, 2011

Thomas Haynesworth has been locked in a Virginia prison for 27 years for a string of rapes and other attacks. He always has proclaimed his innocence without hesitation.

DNA recently proved Haynesworth right in two cases and implicated a convicted rapist. But there is no DNA evidence from two other attacks.

Haynesworth's legal team, with the extraordinary backing of prosecutors and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, now are preparing to ask a court to free Haynesworth anyway.

The legal documents, expected to be filed in the coming days, will cap a months-long effort by the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and authorities to reinvestigate the nearly three-decade-old crimes. Authorities re-interviewed Haynesworth and the victims and dug through the case files. Haynesworth passed two polygraph examinations. In the end, they were convinced that the wrong man is behind bars.

"I very much hope Mr. Haynesworth gets released very soon," said Henrico County Commonwealth's Attorney Wade Kizer. "I can't imagine anything worse to happen than to be 18 years old, the police put handcuffs on you and you spend every day since 1984 knowing in your heart you didn't do it."

Brian Gottstein, a spokesman for Cuccinelli, known as a law-and-order conservative, said the office supports Haynesworth's effort. "New evidence calls into question the integrity" of Haynesworth's convictions, Gottstein said.

Freedom, though, is far from guaranteed.

The Virginia Court of Appeals, which considers so-called Writs of Actual Innocence, has only once exonerated a convict in a case that didn't have the certainty of genetic evidence. The court must be convinced that no jury would convict Haynesworth if it heard all the facts known today.

One victim is advocating for Haynesworth's release. But another, a woman in a case without DNA, remains convinced that she identified the right man.

"Courts are very reluctant to reopen criminal convictions, for reasons of finality and because they worry that the new evidence may be less reliable than the evidence available at the time of trial," said Brandon L. Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor who has studied exonerations.

Haynesworth, who has never used an ATM, made a call on a cellphone or hugged many of his nieces and nephews, said in an interview at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Va., that he prays he will be exonerated. He said he has no anger toward the two victims in the cases in which he's been cleared by DNA.

"I'm not what they portray me to be. I hope now they will see the truth," said Haynesworth, 45. "I think about what I could have been doing. The ifs, the what-could-have-beens. The blessings and the unblessings."

Spotted on the street

It was a cold February afternoon when Haynesworth left the Richmond apartment he shared with his mother and headed to the local market to buy sweet potatoes for Sunday dinner. His was a community on edge - a rapist had victimized five women.

About the same time, a woman who had been attacked just days before was headed to the post office. She saw Haynesworth and told a nearby police officer that he was her attacker. Haynesworth, 18 and with no criminal record or high school degree, was immediately arrested.

Four other victims ultimately identified him as their assailant.

That fall, one of the women took the witness stand in a Richmond courtroom and recounted the day she was raped at the day-care center where she worked.

She was just settling in at her desk on Jan. 3, 1984, when she heard a noise, she told jurors. A man popped up behind a set of doors carrying a knife and wearing a blue ski mask.

The man attacked her and fled when a woman bringing her 4-year-old daughter to day care rang the doorbell, but first he told her that he would come back to get her if she called police.

When the prosecutor asked whether the rapist was in the courtroom, the woman pointed at Haynesworth.

Are you sure that that is the person?

Yes, ma'am.

There is no question in your mind?

No, ma'am . . . .

Is there any question in your mind, any question at all that this is the person?

There is no question in my mind.

But she was wrong.

Mistaken eyewitness testimony is the most common cause of wrongful convictions, playing a part in nearly three-quarters of 266 cases in which a prisoner has been exonerated, according to the New York-based Innocence Project.

Errors are more common when the victim and perpetrator are of different races. Haynesworth is black; each of the victims is white.

Today, the woman can still remember how sure she was. But now she is pushing for Haynesworth's release.

"It is about righting a wrong and setting an innocent man free so he can get home to his family," she said in an e-mail. The Washington Post generally does not name the victims of sexual assault without their agreement.

The victim who stands by her identification declined to comment. It is unclear whether she can oppose Haynesworth's writ.

After four trials - three convictions and one acquittal - Haynesworth was sentenced to a total of 74 years in prison.

A sweeping review

In prison, Haynesworth earned his GED. He studied auto mechanics, welding and masonry. He wrote letters to anyone he thought might help him: "60 Minutes," local newspapers, law students.

No one seemed to believe him.

Some days, he said, were bleak.

"It seems like you're dead and the world's still going on," he said. "Ain't getting a chance to have a family or get married. I see my sisters talk about their kids, and I get sad. I want to experience the joys they experience."

In 2005, the exonerations of five wrongly convicted men prompted then-Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) to order a sweeping review of thousands of criminal case files from 1973 through 1988.

Haynesworth's case was among them.

In 2009, tests cleared Haynesworth in the Jan. 3, 1984, rape. The genetic evidence implicated a serial rapist named Leon W. Davis, who called himself the Black Ninja. Davis resembled Haynesworth and has the same blood type. Davis is spending life behind bars for a series of rapes in the same community. He has not been charged in the cases in which Haynesworth was cleared.

Haynesworth's attorneys think that all of the women made the same mistake - that Davis is the real perpetrator. But in two cases, it can't be proven to a scientific certainty because of the lack of DNA evidence.

In an unusual step, Haynesworth asked that evidence be tested in a rape in which a jury had acquitted him. Again, the DNA pointed to Davis.

"This case has very complicated facts, but a close look at those facts leads to one very simple conclusion: that Thomas Haynesworth didn't commit these crimes and Leon Davis did," said Shawn Armbrust, Haynesworth's attorney.

Davis declined to be interviewed.

Swayed by polygraphs

Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring remembers the fall day in 2010 when he sat down with Thomas Haynesworth.

Haynesworth was humble, well-mannered and soft spoken, Herring said, but he wondered whether the man before him was a "charming predator" trying to get himself out of an abduction conviction.

Then the retired FBI agent who had questioned Haynesworth about the crime announced the results of a polygraph test. "He said, 'This ain't your guy,' " Herring said.

Detectives found similarities between Davis's crimes and those attributed to Haynesworth. A Virginia State Police polygraph expert quizzed Haynesworth about another case. Again, he passed.

Peter Neufeld, director of the Innocence Project and one of Haynesworth's attorneys, said that after so many exonerations based on DNA testing, prosecutors have been more willing to reexamine old cases.

"Ten years ago, prosecutors would have said it's our job to defend verdicts," Neufeld said. "Now they take the position their job is to seek justice."

In this case, Herring said, the puzzle pieces point to Haynesworth's innocence.

"This is a sad of case of the wrong guy locked up," he said.

glodm@washpost.com Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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