Thomas Haynesworth greets his great-niece Da'Niya Haynesworth, 4, at his mother's home in Richmond in March. (Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST)

Thomas Haynesworth sorted mail and made copies early Tuesday at his clerical job in Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II’s office. Then Cuccinelli went to work for him.

In a vaulted courtroom, Cuccinelli passionately tried to convince a Virginia appeals court that Haynesworth is an innocent man. That the state made a mistake when Haynesworth was convicted of rape three decades ago. That his name should be cleared.

Then the two walked back to work.

“I’ll see you up there,” Cuccinelli told Haynesworth as he might any other colleague heading back to the grind.

The relationship between Virginia’s top law enforcement official and parolee is an unlikely one, born of one of the state’s most extraordinary legal cases. Cuccinelli, a law-and-order conservative Republican is a former state senator from Fairfax County who is known as a political bulldog. Haynesworth, 46, is a high school dropout who was arrested at 18.

“He’s an extraordinary guy,” Haynesworth said of Cuccinelli. “A total stranger put it on the line for me.”

When DNA exonerated Haynesworth in two sexual assaults, Cuccinelli was so moved that he invited him in for a personal apology. That meeting led to a job offer. Then Tuesday, Cuccinelli argued before the court.

“This case has kept many prosecutors from going to bed at night,” Cuccinelli said. “It’s a real wake-up call. Not to say things need to be changed, but that this could happen.”

Haynesworth was released from prison in March after serving 27 years in a string of rapes and assaults that prosecutors now believe were committed by another man. Although DNA evidence cleared him in two cases, there is no DNA to test in the other two.

Cuccinelli is pushing the court to exonerate Haynesworth in those, too.

The appeals court will make its decision on a Writ of Actual Innocence in the coming weeks or months. If the court sides with Haynesworth, it would be a landmark ruling: Only one other convict has been exonerated in such a case with no DNA evidence.

Although he is free, without that official exoneration, Haynesworth remains a convicted sex offender and his photo is on the state sex offender registry. Cuccinelli said he knew it would be tough for Haynesworth to get a job as a convicted felon. So the month after Haynesworth left prison, he put him on the state payroll.

The relationship between the prosecutor and the parolee has surprised some because of the reputation Cuccinelli has cultivated.

“People perceive Cuccinelli as a hard-right figure on a number of issues,” said Mark Rozell, a George Mason University political scientist. “They don’t tend to see him as having a soft side.”

Cuccinelli said he sees no conflict between his support for Haynesworth and his politics. “The proper conservative is careful about the exercise of government power — even judicial power,” he said.

For his part, Haynesworth said he is grateful that Cuccinelli gave him an opportunity to work and begin to rebuild his life. He said he plans to stay there for a while but hopes to eventually strike out on his own and start a business as a car mechanic.

“It’s a good atmosphere, and it’s good people,” Haynesworth said at the attorney general’s office.

Haynesworth was out buying groceries for a Sunday dinner in 1984 when he was arrested on a rape allegation. He had no criminal record, but the victim mistakenly identified him as her attacker. He was suspected in five attacks, convicted in three and sentenced to more than 80 years in prison.

As part of a statewide review in 2009, the semen collected in the first attack was tested for DNA. The results cleared Haynesworth and implicated a convicted rapist, Leon Davis. Davis, who is serving time, has declined to say anything about the cases.

Cuccinelli said local prosecutors came to him about Haynesworth’s case last year, saying, “I think this guy’s innocent.”

“We started to dig down on it,” Cuccinelli said. He began examining the case, including a spreadsheet of evidence that took up a wall. By the end, Cuccinelli said, he was convinced that the wrong man was in prison, and he set out to make it right.

“We have not seen in my office a case like this before,” Cuccinelli said.

The Haynesworth case follows efforts to expand the rights of felons to challenge their convictions. In 2001, a new Virginia law allowed inmates to ask for DNA tests at any time. In the following years, voters approved a constitutional amendment that allowed the convicted to present such evidence in court. And in 2004, a law expanded the rule to allow the courts to consider non-DNA evidence, including new testimony. As a state senator, Cuccinelli voted for an earlier effort to pass the law, which failed.

Under the current law, Haynesworth’s attorneys will have to convince the appeals court that a reasonable jury would not find Haynesworth guilty if it had all the evidence before it that is available today. They believe the evidence is there, given the DNA tests from the previous cases and other evidence.

“To find Haynesworth guilty, a jury would have to accept the coincidence that there were two guys in the same neighborhood who looked alike and were committing the same crimes,” said Shawn Armbrust, an attorney for the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.

The appeals court could rule against Haynesworth or kick his case back to local circuit courts for more hearings. If Haynesworth loses his petition, Armbrust said she will appeal the case to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Dolores Haynesworth, Thomas’s mother, said he returned to a whole new world after 27 years behind bars. He had never used a cellphone, Googled or withdrawn money from an ATM before he was released.

“A lot of things have changed since he got locked up,” Dolores Haynesworth said. “When he told me he had a job, I told him go ahead and work and don’t mess up.”