Warner Gives Full Pardons To 2 Cleared By DNA Tests

By Jamie Stockwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 23, 2005

Phillip L. Thurman says he's cried three times in the past 20 years.

The first came on a steamy June day in 1985 when a jury stood up and said he dragged a young woman from an Alexandria bus stop, beat her, tried to strangle her and raped her. That night, alone in his cell in the city jail, his sobs were heavy and unbroken.

The second time he wept was in 1992. His mother died while he was incarcerated, and the state of Virginia allowed him to attend her funeral shackled and with armed guards at his side. He cried for his mother and from embarrassment and shame.

The last time he sobbed was on a chilly night in October, just 11 months after he'd been released from prison on parole. A smiling Alexandria police detective told him what he already knew and had been trying to tell everyone for two decades: "You're innocent," the detective said. That rainy night, he cried tears of joy.

"God is good," Thurman said this week, touching a gold cross that hung on a chain around his neck. "God is real good. I'm just so grateful now."

Yesterday, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) granted a full and absolute pardon to Thurman. Last week, the governor announced that newly tested DNA from the Alexandria rape and another one in Norfolk had exonerated Thurman and the defendant in Norfolk, Willie Davidson. Davidson also was pardoned yesterday.

Despite the pardon, Thurman must petition a judge to have the conviction removed from his record. Still, after 20 years, he can finally walk around without the label "rapist."

"I'm hopeful that it will help me find work," Thurman said of the pardon before it became official. "I'm looking forward to bettering myself through education and making up for lost time with my family. It's a relief, and I will move on."

In his first interview, Thurman, now 51, recounted the two decades he spent behind bars at some of the state's most notorious prisons. He spoke without bitterness of missing the births of his grandchildren and all of his kids' birthdays. He spoke of eventually giving up hope that someone would recognize the error and set him free. Instead, he found peace with what he saw as his fate.

"I had to deal with the hand that was in front of me," he said in a steady voice not much louder than a whisper.

He wasn't always that resolute. He remembers saying over and over to himself the night he was convicted: "I am innocent. I am not a rapist." It was a refrain he would repeat in the coming years in handwritten letters to judges and lawyers and advocates for those wrongly imprisoned.

Thurman said he trusted the criminal justice system; he said he believed it wouldn't fail him. But in the end, it did, he said, and his only choice was to carry out his sentence in silence.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company