“It’s a blessing,’’ Haynesworth said as he stood with his attorneys and Cuccinelli. “There are a lot of people behind the scenes who believed in me. Twenty-seven years, I never gave up. I kept pushing. I ain’t give up hope.
“I am very happy. Me and my family can finally put this behind us, and I can go on with my life. And I can finally vote.”
The case shows how far Virginia has come in allowing convicts to argue their innocence. Historically, prisoners were barred from introducing new evidence more than three weeks after sentencing, and in the 1990s, then-Attorney General Mary Sue Terry (D) famously said, “Evidence of innocence is irrelevant.” But when DNA testing resulted in hundreds of exonerations nationwide, it prompted Virginia lawmakers to open the door for courts to reconsider guilt based first on genetic evidence and later on other evidence, such as recanted testimony, fingerprints or ballistics.
Although Haynesworth was released on parole in March, he has not been fully free. Now, his photo has been taken off the state’s sex offender registry. He is allowed to use the Internet. Finally, he can take a woman on a date without first introducing her to a parole officer.
“I have never heard him this excited, including the day he was released from jail,” said Shawn Armbrust, one of his attorneys and director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. “Everybody, the law and the government, says he did not do this. Before there was always an asterisk.”
Despite the support of law enforcement, Haynesworth’s exoneration was far from guaranteed. Four of 10 Virginia Court of Appeals judges opposed granting the writ.
“The victims have not recanted, no one has confessed, and there is no direct evidence that Haynesworth did not commit these crimes,” Judges Larry G. Elder and William G. Petty wrote in a dissenting opinion. “The Attorney General has merely expressed his opinion that Haynesworth is innocent.”
Haynesworth was 18 when he was arrested as he headed to the market to buy groceries for Sunday dinner. A woman who had been attacked days earlier spotted him and told a police officer that he was the assailant.
Haynesworth told police that they had the wrong man. But five women ultimately identified him as their attacker. He was convicted in three attacks and acquitted in one; one case was dropped.
For years, Haynesworth languished in prison. He earned his GED and studied auto mechanics, welding and masonry.