A Virginia man who has spent 27-years in prison for rapes and other attacks he says he did not commit will be freed while a court considers his innocence claim, Virginia officials said Friday.
Thomas Haynesworth, who was 18 years old when he was arrested in a string of 1984 attacks in Richmond, has been exonerated by DNA in two rapes. But he also was convicted of two other attacks in which there is no genetic evidence to test.
Haynesworth, now 45, has consistently claimed his innocence in all the cases and has been fighting to clear his name. Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) and two prosecutors are convinced Haynesworth was wrongly convicted and are backing his bid for a “writ of actual innocence.”
But Haynesworth has remained behind bars while the Virginia Court of Appeals weighs his claim. So in an unusual move, Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) asked the state parole board to consider Haynesworth’s case. The board voted to grant parole and to release Haynesworth under certain conditions.
Haynesworth could be set free from the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt as soon as next week, according to his legal team. He will celebrate his 46th birthday on Monday.
“I was just stunned,” Delores Haynesworth, Haynesworth’s mother, said of the news. “I’m just trying to take all of it in myself. It’ll be a blessing.”
Haynesworth was first taken into custody on a February afternoon in 1984 as he was walking to the store in his Richmond neighborhood to buy sweet potatoes for Sunday dinner. A woman who had been attacked days earlier saw Haynesworth and told a police officer he was her attacker.
Haynesworth, a high school dropout with no criminal record, told police they had the wrong man. But five women ultimately identified him as their attacker. He was convicted in three attacks, acquitted in one and one charge was dropped.
From his prison cell, Haynesworth wrote letters to newspapers and law students proclaiming his innocence. He hoped someone would take up his case.
“When you know you’re innocent it plays on your mind,” Haynesworth said in a recent interview from prison. “It seems like you’re dead and the world still goes on.”
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 the 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 has declined to be interviewed.
In light of the DNA evidence, prosecutors agreed to re-examine the cases in which there is no genetic evidence to test. They pored over the case files, and Haynesworth passed two polygraph examinations.
The Virginia Court of Appeals has scheduled a March 30 hearing to consider Haynesworth’s innocence claim. But McDonnell said that “in light of the unique circumstances” of the case, he asked the parole board to review it.
McDonnell also said in a statement he will consider a petition for pardon.
“We’re ecstatic,” said Shawn Armbrust, Haynesworth’s attorney and director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. “It doesn’t fully correct his conviction, but it gets Thomas out. It shows a real commitment on behalf of the governor and everyone in Virginia to righting these wrongs once they are found out.”
Haynesworth said that over the years his friends in prison told him he’d have a better shot of being granted parole if he admitted guilt, but he has refused. The parole board most recently turned him down last summer.
“An inmate I knew, he said you have to go in an say you did it even though you didn’t do it,” Haynesworth recalled. “I said I’m not going to say something I didn’t do.”
Haynesworth said one of the first things he would do on the outside is visit the grave of his brother, who died while Haynesworth was behind bars. He said he hopes to get a job as a mechanic. He’s planning to move in with his mother.
“I’ll just be at home waiting for him to walk through the door,” Dolores Haynesworth said.