Roy Watford poses at his Chesapeake, Va., home on Dec. 29, 2017. Watford is petitioning the Virginia Supreme Court to overturn his 1978 rape conviction. (Jay Westcott/For The Washington Post)

Roy Watford was 18 and borderline intellectually disabled when a Virginia judge asked him to make a decision that would go a long way toward determining his future: How would he plead to the charge of raping a 12-year-old girl?

Watford contended he was innocent, but his grandfather urged him not to risk a trial. He was looking at possible life in prison if convicted by a jury, while a prosecutor was offering a deal that would let him walk out of the courthouse without serving a day.

So Watford rose on March 23, 1978, with a heavy sense of shame, and uttered the word that would dog him over the next four decades: guilty.

Watford, 58, of Chesapeake, Va., is now petitioning the Virginia Supreme Court to overturn his conviction, saying that he erred in his plea and that new evidence — including DNA tests — shows he could not have committed the crime. The state opposes the motion, saying Watford has not met the high bar of proof.

The court will hear oral arguments Wednesday before returning a decision.

Roy Watford poses for a portrait at his home in Chesapeake, Va. (Jay Westcott/For The Washington Post)

Few think they would admit to crimes they didn’t commit, but a recent spate of cases like Watford’s is bringing increased attention to the issue of defendants who claim they are innocent despite their guilty pleas. Innocence advocates say such cases raise questions about the plea-bargain system, which has grown to resolve about 95 percent of felony criminal cases in the United States.

U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York Jed S. Rakoff said mandatory minimums and other factors that increased the length of sentences during the rise in crime between the late 1960s and mid-1990s have given prosecutors extraordinary leverage over defendants — even innocent ones.

“The penalty for going to trial is so high if you lose that many people cannot take it,” Rakoff said.

The National Registry of Exonerations database shows that nearly 400 of the nation’s roughly 2,140 known exonerees pleaded guilty to their crimes before being cleared, or about 19  percent of the total. The Innocence Project and others launched a campaign to highlight the issue in early 2017.

“People plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit all the time. I didn’t realize the gravity of the situation,” Watford said. “I was raised by my grandmother and grandfather and was never told anything wrong by them, so I listened to them.”

Watford, who received a sentence of 10 years’ probation, said the rape conviction has left him unable to find steady work. He has bounced from job to job over the years, barely earning more than minimum wage.

Faded memories, missing evidence and the death of the detective involved have made reexamining his case challenging, but the basic outline is not in dispute.

The trouble began on Sept. 14, 1977.

When she was 12, a woman testified at an April 2017 evidentiary hearing to help the court decide Watford’s innocence claim, she got on her bike in Portsmouth, Va., and set out to find Watford, whom she knew from the neighborhood. The Post generally does not name alleged victims of sexual assault.

The woman testified that she knocked on a door of a home that a neighbor said was vacant and used for trysts and partying.

When the door opened, the woman told the court, she saw Watford’s 15-year-old brother inside. Then someone threw a blanket over her head. She said her view remained blocked by the quilt during the attack that followed.

At the time, the girl told a detective she was taken inside the home and raped and sodomized by three black males on a bare mattress, according to court records. She later identified the three Watford brothers as her attackers, the records said.

But at last year’s evidentiary hearing, the woman said the only person she could definitively say was in the house was the 15-year-old brother. The woman said she did not see Roy Watford that day and could not say whether she heard his voice during the assault. She did not remember whether she specifically identified Watford to police as one of her attackers.

Joseph Edward Brown, a neighbor, testified at the evidentiary hearing that he and a friend happened to be passing by the vacant home around the time of the alleged rape.

“We heard a girl screaming on the way home, so we went into the vacant house, saw the girl standing up screaming to the right,” Brown testified. “Some guys were on the left. We took the girl out of the house.”

She went home and told her mother what happened, the woman testified at the evidentiary hearing. Her mother took her to Naval Regional Medical Center, where she was examined and police were called.

Sperm was collected from a vaginal swab and from the girl’s jeans and the mattress, according to court records. DNA matching was not yet developed, so the material wasn’t tested at the time.

Hairs were also taken from the scene and eventually matched to Watford and his other brother, who was 16. In the years since, hair matching has been discredited as a form of forensic science.

The Watford brothers were charged with rape and sodomy. Roy Watford had no previous criminal record and told The Washington Post he was hanging out with friends at a store in Portsmouth at the time of the alleged rape. The Post does not generally name juveniles charged with crimes, so it is not naming Watford’s brothers.

The 15-year-old brother was found “not innocent” in juvenile court, and charges against the 16-year-old were dropped. The case against Roy Watford continued.

At his arraignment in March 1978, Watford was offered a plea deal that included dropping the sodomy charge. The prosecutor, Gregory J. Pomije, had only a faint memory of the case, but he confirmed it was unusual to offer a deal of no jail time on a rape charge, according to court records.

Jon Sheldon, Watford’s attorney, said he felt the light punishment reflected the weakness of the case against his client.

After the conviction, Watford returned to his life, continuing high school and working a job. He completed probation and has not had another charge since, but he said the conviction narrowed his horizons.

In 2005, then-Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner ordered fresh DNA tests in thousands of criminal cases from 1973 to 1988, including Watford’s, after a trove of biological samples was discovered in the case files of a deceased former analyst from the state’s Department of Forensic Science.

The sweeping review came after DNA evidence led to a handful of high-profile exonerations that shook confidence in the state’s justice system.

The DNA testing in Watford’s case excluded all three brothers as contributing any of the biological material that was collected from the scene and the girl. The tests did not provide any positive matches.

Detectives visited the woman in 2010 and 2016 following the results of the DNA tests, but she did not provide any other details about the case and said she wanted to put it behind her, according to court records. The woman did not respond to requests for comment.

In August 2016, Watford filed his petition for a writ of actual innocence with the Virginia Supreme Court.

The state’s Office of the Attorney General opposed the motion, writing that there was not enough evidence in the record to grant it because there wasn’t a trial and the DNA evidence alone was not strong enough to prove Watford’s innocence.

The state said the only DNA that could be definitively linked to the rape was that recovered from the girl’s vagina, not what was found on her pants or the bed because those samples may have been put there at other times.

Because there were multiple assailants, the Attorney General’s Office reasoned, Watford could have participated in the attack, but one of the other attackers could have been responsible for the sperm found inside the victim. The office declined to comment for this article.

“He has not shown by clear and convincing evidence that a rational trier of fact would have disbelieved [the victim],” the office wrote in response to Watford’s petition.

Earlier in 2017, the Virginia Supreme Court ordered last year’s evidentiary hearing to ascertain facts that weren’t in the record.

Watford said he is cautiously optimistic the court will side with him.