RICHMOND — After spending 27 years in prison for rapes and attacks prosecutors now say he did not commit, Thomas Haynesworth started a new life as a free man Monday.
At his mother’s cozy bungalow, where a spare bedroom has always waited for him, Haynesworth ate the Chinese takeout he had been craving — chicken fried rice for lunch. For the first time in his life, he placed a call on a cellphone. Two nieces he had just met crawled into his lap as he relaxed on a recliner in the living room.
It was his 46th birthday, and he was finally home.
“I’m just going to sit here and relax and spend time with my mother,” Haynesworth said.
Haynesworth was an 18-year-old high school dropout when was arrested as he walked to the market to buy sweet potatoes and bread for Sunday dinner. He told police they had the wrong man.
Now, nearly three decades later, Virginia Attorney General Ken T. Cuccinelli II and two prosecutors say they believe he was telling the truth. DNA and other evidence, they say, point to another attacker.
Haynesworth has his freedom, but he is still fighting to clear his name. He was released after Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) asked the parole board to review his case. The state of Virginia is supporting Haynesworth’s bid to have the Virginia Court of Appeals issue a “Writ of Actual Innocence.”
“I believe in Mr. Haynesworth’s innocence, and I will continue to work toward a complete vindication,” Cuccinelli said in a written statement.
Haynesworth said he will continue fighting for exoneration. He thinks the court “will see the truth,” he said.
But Monday was about celebrating and starting anew.
About 11:20 a.m., Haynesworth, wearing khaki pants and a button-down shirt, walked out of the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt carrying his television and a single garbage bag that held the rest of his belongings.
“He’s home,” his mother, Dolores Haynesworth, said as she tucked her arm around her son. “It’s still hard to believe. I’m holding him, but it’s still hard to believe.”
Haynesworth has never googled, used an ATM or traveled on an airplane. He doesn’t have a driver’s license. During nearly three decades behind bars, he was told when to eat, exercise and go to bed. He said he’s ready to catch up with a world he knows only from television and books.
But for starters, he craves simple things. He wants to sit on a porch, reconnect with old friends and enjoy some of his mother’s fried trout.
“It’s been a long journey,” Haynesworth said. “I just want to reflect and sit down and talk to my momma and eat a meal with her.”
Haynesworth was arrested on a February afternoon in 1984 when his mother sent him out to buy groceries. A woman who had been attacked days earlier saw Haynesworth and told a police officer he was the man.
Haynesworth, who had no criminal record, maintained from the start that he was innocent. But five women ultimately identified him as their attacker. He was convicted in three attacks and acquitted in one; one case was dropped.
In 2005, in the wake of the exonerations of five other wrongly convicted men, then-Virginia governor Mark R. Warner (D) ordered a sweeping review of thousands of criminal cases from 1973 through 1988. Haynesworth’s was among them.
Using technology that wasn’t available in the 1980s, authorities tested DNA collected from a January 1984 rape for which Haynesworth was convicted. The results cleared him and implicated a convicted rapist named Leon Davis.
The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project took on Haynesworth’s case. DNA testing exonerated Haynesworth in a second rape in which he had been a suspect. Again, Davis was implicated.
Davis lived in the same neighborhood as Haynesworth. They resembled each other and have the same blood type.
Davis, who is jailed on other charges, has declined to be interviewed.
Haynesworth also was convicted in two attacks for which there is no genetic evidence. Prosecutors who have reexamined the cases are convinced he was wrongly convicted of those crimes, too.
Haynesworth said guards at the prison woke him up about 1 a.m. Monday to tell him he soon would be released. The other inmates gave him a birthday card that he brought home.
Hours later he was walking outside, hugging his mother and sisters. News photographers shot photos and reporters fired questions at him.
“Back in the hands of the people that love him,” a nephew said.
“I always believed this day would come,” Haynesworth said. “I didn’t think it would take 27 years.”
At home, he checked out his new bedroom and decided it would need some of his own touches. His mother’s dog, Stud, snapped at him. And he settled back in the easy chair as his mother prepared to whip up a dinner of scalloped potatoes, string beans and her son’s favorite trout.
“When we’re here tonight and it’s just the two of us, it will sink in,” she said.