A Virginia man’s 40-year-old rape conviction was vacated Thursday after the state Supreme Court ruled no jury would have found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in the light of new evidence.
Roy L. Watford III, 58, of Chesapeake, Va., petitioned the court to overturn his 1978 conviction for raping a 12-year-old girl, after new tests of biological material recovered from the girl and the scene of the crime did not show the presence of his DNA.
The court wrote in its opinion that Watford “has proved, by clear and convincing evidence,” his petition for what is known as a writ of actual innocence, which requires a high bar of evidence in Virginia.
“I’m relieved,” Watford said. “My next move is getting another job and getting my income back up.”
The state opposed the motion, saying the evidence was not strong enough to exonerate Watford.
On the advice of his grandfather, Watford, then 18, pleaded guilty to the crime in a Portsmouth, Va., court as part of a deal with prosecutors that spared him prison time. Watford said he was innocent, but his grandfather worried about him not taking the deal, because he faced the possibility of a life sentence if convicted at trial.
DNA testing did not exist at the time of the crime. The first conviction based on DNA profiling happened in 1986.
Watford said the conviction has dogged him for the past four decades, making it difficult for him to find steady work and limiting his ambitions. He said he has gone from job to job and has had trouble earning more than minimum wage.
At an evidentiary hearing in April, the victim testified she set out on her bike in Portsmouth on Sept. 14, 1977, to find Watford, who she knew from the neighborhood.
She said she knocked on the door of an abandoned home and when it opened, she saw one of Watford’s two brothers inside. Then someone threw a blanket over her head.
The blanket would remain over her head as three men raped and sodomized her on a bare mattress inside the home, she testified. The woman said she did not see Roy Watford that day and could not say whether she heard his voice during the assault.
Detectives collected a vaginal swab from the victim that contained sperm, and pieces of the mattress and her jeans that appeared to contain biological material.
All three Watford brothers were eventually charged in the assault. One of the brothers was found “not innocent” in juvenile court, while the charges were dropped against the other brother.
After his conviction, Roy Watford returned to his life.
In 2005, then-Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) ordered fresh DNA tests in thousands of Virginia criminal cases from 1973 to 1988, including Watford’s, after a bevy of biological samples was discovered in the case files of a deceased former analyst for the state’s Department of Forensic Science.
The tests did not find the presence of Watford’s DNA or that of his brothers in the samples collected by detectives. No positive matches were found.
With the new evidence in hand, Watford filed his petition for a writ of actual innocence in August 2016.
“Many still do not understand the incredible disabling and isolating affect of a felony conviction and we’re so happy that Roy will not have to deal with that anymore,” Watford’s attorney Jon Sheldon wrote in an email.