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

"I think about what I could have been doing," says Thomas Haynesworth, imprisoned in Jarratt, Va. "The ifs, the what-could-have-beens. The blessings and the unblessings."
"I think about what I could have been doing," says Thomas Haynesworth, imprisoned in Jarratt, Va. "The ifs, the what-could-have-beens. The blessings and the unblessings." (Jay Paul - For The Washington Post)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011; 12:16 AM

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.

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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."

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