RICHMOND, Va. — One Sunday morning in February 1984, Thomas Haynesworth’s mother sent him to the Trio supermarket to pick up some bread and sweet potatoes.
He never got there. Instead, he was stopped and questioned in connection with a recent rape. That began a 27-year odyssey through false accusation, arrest, prison and pain.
Mr. Haynesworth, then 18 and never in trouble with the law, had been mistakenly identified by the victim as her assailant. He was arrested on suspicion of having committed five rapes and assaults in his neighborhood, and was tried for four of them. He was convicted in three and sentenced to 84 years in prison.
DNA has since proved that he did not commit two of the rapes he was tried for. The DNA from those two cases pointed to another man, in prison for having committed multiple rapes in the same neighborhood that occurred after Mr. Haynesworth’s arrest. That man, Leon Davis, who identified himself to victims as “the Black Ninja,” is serving multiple life terms plus 100 years.
Now Mr. Haynesworth, 46, is asking for full exoneration on all of the rape convictions, although DNA from the other two cases is not available. But the circumstantial evidence supporting Mr. Haynesworth’s claims of innocence is so powerful that along with his own lawyers, the prosecutors from both jurisdictions where the rapes occurred support his efforts, as well as the attorney general for the commonwealth, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli.
With no one arguing against exoneration, most judges would be expected to congratulate Mr. Haynesworth on his new life, perhaps with an apology as well, and send him into daylight and freedom. But in July, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals of Virginia said, in essence, “Not so fast.” The court called for additional briefs in the case, which will be heard again on Tuesday by all of the judges of the court.
It is a move that has left legal experts astonished. “It’s very rare for a court to set a case for argument when all the parties are agreed,” said Stephen J. Schulhofer, an expert in criminal justice at New York University law school, adding that “it’s essentially unheard of” for a court to take matters into its own hands, instead of appointing a special advocate to argue on behalf of the interests that they believe are unrepresented.
It is a case, then, that might seem quirky, even unique. But experts like Professor Schulhofer say the case raises broader questions about the lengths that defendants must sometimes go to clear their names, and even raises fundamental questions about the administration of justice. “What I worry about is, if Haynesworth is having trouble getting his conviction set aside, what kind of judicial relief is available to your run-of-the-mill case where your arguments are not quite so slam dunk?”
Mr. Haynesworth’s fight for freedom began in 2009, when the state’s department of forensic evidence tested the DNA from the first rape as part of a broad review of old case files. The results cleared Mr. Haynesworth of that rape, and he received an exoneration on that charge later that year. Mr. Haynesworth’s lawyers at the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and the Innocence Project in New York, along with private lawyers, filed legal papers for Mr. Haynesworth with the Court of Appeals of Virginia to get a writ of actual innocence on the remaining convictions. Subsequent testing of the DNA from the trial in which Mr. Haynesworth was acquitted eliminated him — and again implicated Mr. Davis.
Virginia’s parole board released Mr. Haynesworth from prison in March, on his 46th birthday. But he is still pressing for exoneration — “to clear my name, you know what I’m saying?” He is classified as a paroled sex offender, and has to appear on public registries of rapists and other sexual miscreants. He has to inform the authorities in order to move from one home to another, and even had to request permission to visit his nieces.
“I’m out, but still not totally free,” he said. “It puts a cloud over your life.”
Mr. Cuccinelli said in an interview that he and his staff reviewed the evidence in the Haynesworth case in great detail. “It was a complex decision,” he said, “but it wasn’t a hard decision.” The thought of the wrongful conviction haunted him. “It’s hard to describe how painful it is to me that somebody would suffer what he has.”
He explained that the law that allowed writs of actual innocence was crafted with a very high standard of proof in mind. It places a premium on preserving the finality of the judicial process and attempts to avoid endless appeals. “I would say it’s cultural to the state,” he said. “You get your shot, you take your shot, and we’re not going to muck around with it anymore.”