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Va. court exonerates wrongly convicted man in rapes

Tuesday - 12/6/2011, 6:12pm  ET

By ZINIE CHEN SAMPSON
Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A Richmond man who had been imprisoned nearly 30 years for at least one sexual assault he didn't commit has been exonerated in two other rape cases.

A divided Virginia Court of Appeals on Tuesday vacated Thomas Haynesworth's rape and abduction convictions in two sexual assaults in 1984. Haynesworth's lawyers had argued that a large body of evidence cleared him of the crimes and implicated imprisoned serial rapist Leon Davis.

Haynesworth said after 27 years of waiting, his exoneration was like having early birthday and Christmas presents, and he thanked those who believed in him.

"I never gave up hope, I kept pushing," he said at a news conference. Headded that he's glad to regain true freedom, including the right to vote and to travel out of town without permission.

Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli and prosecutors in the two jurisdictions where the crimes occurred joined Haynesworth's attorneys from the Innocence Project in efforts to seek full exoneration for Haynesworth.

Cuccinelli said he was ecstatic at the outcome of the case, and that justice was served for a patient and steadfast Haynesworth.

"His composure, dignity and faithfulness are an absolute witness to me," he said. "I am an admirer here."

The attorney general also apologized on behalf of the state to Haynesworth, and added that although no one intentionally did anything wrong, the system is imperfect and that law enforcement officials should account for that in their decision-making.

Authorities released Haynesworth from prison in March after DNA evidence cleared him in two attacks. He petitioned for writs of actual innocence in the other cases as he sought to lift his strict parole and to remove his name from public sex-offender registries.

Cuccinelli said Haynesworth no longer appears on the state registry, the state parole board will issue an administrative discharge, and the process for expunging his record in Richmond and Henrico County is under way.

Innocence Project co-director Peter Neufeld said the 46-year-old Haynesworth would no longer have to wear an ankle monitor or be subject to curfews and "would have the same freedom of movement that the rest of the population has."

Lawyers told the appeals court in September that Davis committed a string of sexual assaults during the time that included the two for which Haynesworth was convicted. Known attacks by Davis occurred in the same area and followed the same pattern, and law-enforcement authorities concluded that one person committed all five assaults.

Cuccinelli and Innocence Project attorney Shawn Ambrust argued that several pieces of evidence discovered after Haynesworth's convictions indicate Davis, and not Haynesworth, also committed the two rapes at issue in the petition and should clear Haynesworth from having committed the crimes.

Attorneys also argued that Davis and Haynesworth looked strikingly similar and witnesses already had misidentified Haynesworth as Davis twice.

Police arrested the 18-year-old Haynesworth in February 1984 near his home after a victim in one of the assaults reported that a man resembling him attacked her. The other victims selected his face in photographic lineups. Ultimately, Haynesworth was convicted in three of the attacks and was acquitted of one _ in which DNA testing later implicated Davis. Prosecutors dropped charges in the case of the victim who first identified him as her attacker.

Haynesworth was released from prison after DNA testing cleared him and implicated Davis in one of the rapes. He now works at a clerical job in the attorney general's office.

The 6-4 ruling vacates convictions in the two cases for which DNA evidence was unavailable, with the majority agreeing that the body of evidence entitles Haynesworth to have the convictions vacated because "a rational trier of fact" wouldn't be able to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that he was the perpetrator.

In a sharply worded dissent, Judge Larry Elder, joined by Judge William Petty, disagreed with the majority's conclusion, saying there was no direct evidence that exonerates Haynesworth and that the court should have dismissed his petition.

"The fact that Haynesworth did not commit other crimes does not prove that he did not attack these two victims," wrote Elder, who also noted that neither victim has recanted her positive identification of Haynesworth or expressed doubt about her attacker.

Cuccinelli said, and he and his staff planned to review the dissenting opinions.

Neufeld said in a telephone interview that the dissenting judges "were still somewhat hung up on the fact that a couple women made these misidentifications," Neufeld said. "What that tells us is that we still have a long way to go for people to appreciate how often eyewitnesses are mistaken."

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