RICHMOND, VIRGINIA – Lawyers for a Richmond man imprisoned nearly 30 years for at least one crime he didn’t commit are asking the Virginia Court of Appeals to exonerate him in two other sexual assaults.
Thomas Haynesworth petitioned the full court Tuesday for writs of actual innocence, which would vacate rape and abduction convictions for two sexual assaults in 1984. DNA testing in 2009 cleared the 46-year-old Haynesworth of sexual assault in two cases after the evidence implicated imprisoned serial rapist Leon Davis.
Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli and prosecutors in the two localities where the crimes occurred have backed efforts to secure full exoneration for Haynesworth, who was released from prison in March but is seeking to lift his strict parole and to remove his name from public sex-offender registries.
Cuccinelli and Innocence Project attorney Shawn Ambrust told the 10 judges 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 clear Haynesworth from having committed the crimes.
Davis committed a string of sexual assaults during the time that included the two for which Haynesworth was convicted, Ambrust said. Known attacks by Davis occurred in the same area and followed the same pattern, and law-enforcement authorities concluded that the same person committed all five attacks, she said.
Also, Ambrust said, Davis and Haynesworth looked strikingly similar. He said Haynesworth already had been misidentified twice as Davis, and witnesses described the attacker as taller than the 5-foot-6-inch Haynesworth. Davis is 5 feet 10 inches, according to Haynesworth’s attorneys.
Both Cuccinelli, representing the state of Virginia, and Ambrust argued that the body of evidence entitles Haynesworth to have the two convictions vacated because “a rational trier of fact” wouldn’t be able to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that he was the perpetrator.
In conceding that Haynesworth didn’t commit the crimes, Cuccinelli said that as the state’s chief law enforcement officer, he was acknowledging error in the case.
While the court isn’t obligated to accept such concessions, he argued that it should in this case because the concessions came after a rigorous review by the attorney general’s office, Haynesworth’s lawyers and prosecutors in Richmond and Henrico County, where the attacks occurred. All concluded that Haynesworth was innocent and Davis was guilty.
Judges asked the attorneys whether they thought the victims’ testimony identifying Haynesworth was credible, and whether it should stand because DNA evidence in the two cases is unavailable. Cuccinelli characterized the misidentifications as “innocent inaccuracy” and said that given the combined weight of the new evidence, a rational juror would conclude that the women were mistaken in naming Haynesworth as their attacker.
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.
Cuccinelli noted that under Virginia’s actual innocence law, the Court of Appeals must decide the facts and the law given the new evidence implicating Davis in the cases.
Haynesworth, who now has a clerical job at the attorney general’s office, said after the hearing that he hopes the appeals panel with do the right thing, considering “27 years of my life were taken.” He said he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was wrongly arrested and convicted.
Davis is serving several life prison terms for rape and has refused to discuss the cases for which Haynesworth was convicted, Ambrust said.
The appeals court could take several months to issue a ruling. It could dismiss Haynesworth’s petition, grant him the exonerations, or send the case back to a trial court for rehearing.