Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Innocent v. Exonerated: A World of Difference

Haynesworth and his legal counsel
when he was released from jail
When most of us walk or drive to the grocery store, we go with the expectation that once we pick up what we need: eggs, fruit, milk, etc., we will then return home.  Returning home for most of us is likely more of a routine rather than an expectation.  On Sunday morning, February 5, 1984, eighteen-year-old Thomas Haynesworth, was on his way to the Trio Supermarket to pick up some bread and sweet potatoes for his mother.  Before reaching the supermarket, Haynesworth was stopped and questioned by law enforcement regarding a recent rape.  Haynesworth had never been arrested; however, on this day, he was mistakenly identified by a rape victim as her assailant.  He did not return home that day.

Twenty-seven years later, at age forty-six, Haynesworth was finally released from prison.  Many individuals equate being released from prison for crimes they did not commit with being exonerated.  This, however, was not the case with Haynesworth, nor is it the case with many individuals who are wrongfully convicted and serve lengthy sentences.  Despite being released, Haynesworth was still required to follow a number of strict protocol regulations, which included having to register as a sex offender.
Through the work of Haynesworth’s extraordinary team of advocates, the Mid-Atlantic Innocent Project and Hogan Lovells LLP, DNA testing revealed Haynesworth’s innocence for one of the rapes in which he was convicted.  This DNA testing also confirmed that Leon Davis, an infamous serial rapist, who was already serving seven life sentences for rapes and assaults he committed, was the actual assailant for one of the rapes where Haynesworth was convicted.

Without DNA evidence for the two remaining convictions, Haynesworth and his legal team faced an even greater uphill battle.  It became evident that the remaining two convictions matched a distinctive “modus operandi” of Davis and the many rapes for which he was imprisoned.  The Commonwealth’s Attorneys in the two jurisdictions where Haynesworth was convicted joined the fight for his innocence.  At their request, Haynesworth took and passed two polygraph examinations regarding his two remaining convictions.

At an en banc hearing on September 27, 2011, Shawn Armbrust, Executive Director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and Virginia Commonwealth Attorney, Ken Cuccinelli, among other counsel for Haynesworth, appeared before the Virginia Court of Appeals to advocate for Haynesworth’s exoneration.  Shawn Armbrust argued before the court, “[t]he Attorney General and the Commonwealth Attorneys in Richmond and Henrico counties agree that Haynesworth is innocent of these crimes.  With such unwavering support from the state, we are hopeful that we were able to convince the court today to correct this tragic miscarriage of justice.”

The Virginia Court of Appeals will make its decision on a Writ of Actual Innocence in the coming months.  If the court exonerates Haynesworth, it will be a monumental ruling, as only one other convict has been exonerated of such charges without DNA evidence.  Meanwhile, although Haynesworth is no longer incarcerated, he is living his life back in the real world where he now works in Ken Cuccinelli’s office.  Such an outcome is remarkable in our society where there is minimal help for individuals who are wrongfully convicted and begin to reenter society.  

These individuals to whom a great deal of injustice has already been thrown, are not entitled to social services, job training, or any type of psychological counseling, all of which ex-convicts are not only entitled to, but also required to participate in.  Many individuals who have been exonerated face difficulties securing jobs because their criminal records have not been expunged.  Also, due to their lack of skills with much advancement in today’s technology, many employers are reluctant to hire someone who is unfamiliar with how to use a computer.  The Life After Exoneration Project is the only national organization dedicated to helping those who are wrongfully convicted rebuild their lives outside of prison.         
Megan Petry
Staffer, Criminal Law Brief

To find more information on the Mid-Atlantic Innocent Project and the Life After Exoneration Project, you can visit: www.exonerate.org and www.exonerated.org, respectively.

Image by Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project

1 comment:

  1. In related events:

    Thurs Dec. 1 at noon rm 602 Death Row Exoneree Juan Melendez

    Juan Roberto Melendez spent seventeen years, eight months and one day on Florida’s death row for a crime he did not commit. Upon his release on January 3, 2002, he became the 99th death row prisoner in the United States to be released with evidence of innocence since 1973. Currently the number stands at 138 and a significant majority are either Latino or African-American. Although Mr. Melendez's story is unique, the circumstance of being innocent and on death row is shamefully anything but unique.

    Mr. Melendez's story highlights the myriad of problems that plague the death penalty system, in particular its high risk and inevitability of being imposed on the innocent, its unfair and unequal application on the basis of race and ethnicity and its almost exclusive imposition on our most defenseless and vulnerable members of society--the poor.