Freedom for Thomas Haynesworth

By Editorial
Monday, March 21, 2011; 8:15 PM

THE LAST TIME Thomas Haynesworth walked the streets a free man was in 1984, when the then-18-year-old went to buy sweet potatoes for dinner. Mr. Haynesworth was identified that day by a woman who said he had sexually assaulted her. Mr. Haynesworth ultimately was convicted of raping or sexually assaulting three women in the Richmond area and was sentenced to 70 years behind bars; a jury hung on similar charges in a fourth case.

On Monday - his 46th birthday - Mr. Haynesworth emerged from prison, another step closer to full exoneration.

Mr. Haynesworth has always maintained his innocence, but it took an extraordinary series of events to allow him to make his case. In 2005, then-Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) ordered a review of thousands of cases after the state realized it had been holding five wrongly convicted men. Subsequent DNA tests proved Mr. Haynesworth was innocent of two rapes, but there was no such evidence available from the two other cases. Inconsistencies in the victims' description of the attacker pointed to Mr. Haynesworth's innocence and tended to incriminate another Virginia man - a serial rapist known as the Black Ninja who is serving multiple life sentences for other crimes. Mr. Haynesworth also passed two polygraph tests.

With the help of lawyers from the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, Mr. Haynesworth petitioned a Virginia appeals court to throw out the remaining two convictions. Mr. Haynesworth garnered support from Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, Henrico County prosecutor Wade Kizer and Richmond prosecutor Michael Herring. "I believe in Mr. Haynesworth's innocence and I will continue to work toward a complete vindication," Mr. Cuccinelli said in a statement.

The court is scheduled to hear the case on March 30, but in the meantime Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) took the commendable and unusual step of asking the state's parole board to intervene. Last week, the board recommended release for Mr. Haynesworth; he will be freed, but his criminal record will remain intact unless the Court of Appeals rules in his favor.

It is heartbreaking that an innocent man who was little more than a child when he was first locked away has lost so many years of his life to an unjustified incarceration. "It's been a long journey," Mr. Haynesworth said, according to The Post's Maria Glod. "I missed a lot, reflecting back on what I could have had."

In Mr. Haynesworth's case, the wheels of justice ground much too slowly. But they may never have gotten traction but for the work of his exemplary lawyers and the courageous and honorable acts of Virginia public servants who remembered that ensuring justice is the highest calling.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company