RICHMOND — The Virginia Court of Appeals has fully exonerated a Virginia man who served 27 years in prison for several sexual assaults he did not commit.
“Twenty-seven years, I never gave up hope. I kept pushing,” said Thomas Haynesworth, 46. “I knew I was innocent from the beginning, from day one.”
Mr. Haynesworth was wrongly identified in 1984 as the man who had attacked five women in the Richmond area and was convicted for three of the attacks. In 2009, DNA testing cleared him of one of the rapes and confirmed that another man, Leon Davis, had committed the crime.
While there was no DNA evidence for the remaining convictions, testing in a separate case also cleared Mr. Haynesworth and implicated Mr. Davis, who is currently serving seven life sentences for another series of rapes.
“God has been merciful here today, and I am so thankful,” said Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, a Republican. “This will go down in my life as the greatest loss I ever had, and I’m happy to have it. I have never experienced the pure joy of today’s outcome.”
An emotional Mr. Cuccinelli said he felt he needed to share with the entire state of Virginia what he shared with Mr. Haynesworth the day he met him — that he was sorry.
“This system was designed by human beings, it was run by human beings, and we are all human beings and we make mistakes,” he said. “We need to continually refine our processes as law enforcement officials to weed out improper convictions.”
Mr. Cuccinelli, along with Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring and Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney Wade Kizer, decided to help Mr. Haynesworth clear his name after learning of the DNA information.
After Mr. Haynesworth applied for writs of actual innocence, which were granted Monday morning in a 6-4 decision by the Virginia Court of Appeals, Gov. Bob McDonnell asked the Virginia Parole Board to look at the case. The board granted Mr. Haynesworth parole in March 2011.
Mr. Haynesworth’s case is only the second time a Writ of Actual Innocence has been issued by the Court of Appeals for non-biological evidence since a 2004 law took effect to allow evidence discovered more than 21 days after sentencing to be considered.
Indeed, the day belonged to Mr. Haynesworth.
“Thomas Haynesworth really and truly is a free man,” said Shawn Armbrust, Executive Director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and Mr. Haynesworth’s attorney. “No one is at fault in Thomas’s case. This was a case where mistakes were made, but were made in good faith.”
Ms. Armbrust said she thought Mr. Haynesworth was one of the most patient people she had ever met, and remained calm throughout the legal ordeal.
“That’s because he knew he was innocent,” she said.