Today Thomas Haynesworth was granted a “write of actual innocence” by the Virginia Court of Appeals. Haynesworth had already been released from jail on parole because of evidence that he was innocent, but had been on the state sex offender’s registry and under strict parole supervision. Now he can vote. Now he can ask a woman out on a date without first introducing her to his parole office. Now he can apply for a job or a mortgage without having to tell his prospective employer or bank that he is a felon convicted of rape. The conviction no longer exists legally.
As Mr. Haynesworth said, this has been a long time coming. Twenty seven years, to be precise.
I’ve blogged before about the exonerations of innocent people who were sentenced to jail or to death. These exonerations are usually due to DNA evidence conclusively proving that the convicted person is innocent, and usually happen because of the work of the Innocence Project. Today’s story is a bit different: DNA played a significant part, but DNA evidence was not available for two of the rapes, which made proof of his actual innocence considerably more difficult.
His case is yet another compelling testimony to the weakness of eyewitness testimony as a basis for criminal convictions. Several women who had been raped wrongly identified him as their rapist. In some of those cases, DNA evidence later proved that a different man in the same neighborhood was responsible. He resembles Haynesworth, and prosecutors believe that the mistaken identifications were in fact mistakes, not deliberate false testimony. A number of studies on the effect of certain crimes on the reliability of eyewitness testimony about those crimes have been done in the past three decades. Some witnesses lie, of course, but it appears that violent crimes and especially violent sex crimes disturb the mental processes of the victims and in some cases may interfere with the accuracy of their recollections. In other words, the most sincere, innocent, decent human being who has been raped can with no intent to mislead or lie and full belief in the accuracy of her (or his) memory identify the wrong attacker.
In other words, nature sometimes plays a *really* dirty trick on the poor victim and on the rest of us. :/ I hope that this case and others encourage prosecutors to be even more careful about the reliance that they place on eyewitness testimony in these sorts of cases. It was the cause of a large number of convictions and imprisonments that were later found to have been in error. Many of the wrongly convicted were sentenced to death for henious crimes. :/
We need to fix that broken part of our criminal justice system. We need to have a sense of URGENCY about it.