IT HAS TAKEN 18 years, but the
Virginia Forensic Science Board
has managed to sort through 530,000 old cases from between 1973 and 1988 in which investigators collected biological evidence in anticipation of the development of DNA testing technology.
That the investigators saved that evidence was both fortuitous and prophetic. Last week, the Virginia State Crime Commission announced the names of 13 individuals who had been wrongly convicted and had served time (a total of about 150 years among them) for crimes they didn’t commit.
One of the men didn’t live to hear the news that he’d been cleared. His case had been dismissed on a technicality, but his family said he lived under a cloud of suspicion even though he was innocent.
Some of these names may look familiar as the DNA testing that took place over the years proved their innocence and their stories were reported in the news:
Marvin Lamont Anderson, Bennett Barbour, Victor Anthony Burnette, Calvin Cunningham, Willie Neville Davidson, Garry Diamond, Thomas Haynesworth, Curtis Jasper Moore (deceased), Julius Earl Ruffin, Winston Scott, Philip Leon Thurman, Roy Watford III and Arthur Lee Whitfield.
This saga gives credence to the adage that “the wheels of justice turn slowly,” but it also shows that they do turn and may eventually reach a just conclusion. It also demonstrates that perseverance pays off, particularly when the task at hand is incredibly daunting—and important.
One name that isn’t on the list is Earl Washington Jr., whose case established the importance of the backlog DNA testing and also spurred changes in Virginia law. Washington was convicted in 1984 of a 1982 rape and murder in Culpeper. Attention focused on the intellectually disabled Washington, whose condition caused him to tell authority figures, in this case the police, what they wanted to hear. What they heard was his coerced confession to the crime.
He tried to recant and pleaded not guilty, but was convicted and sentenced to death. Days before his scheduled execution in September 1985, Washington’s story was shared—by another death row inmate—with lawyers who won him a stay of execution.
Still in prison eight years later, DNA testing excluded Washington as a suspect, but the three-week deadline on introducing post-conviction evidence, imposed by Virginia’s infamous 21-day rule, had long passed. In 2001, after serving 16 years, Washington was pardoned by then-Gov. Jim Gilmore and finally released.
It was also in 2001 that the old 530,000 evidence-preserved cases were discovered, and samples tested by 2004 would eventually lead to the exoneration of six of the men named above, according to the Crime Commission report. Meanwhile, as a direct result of the Earl Washington case, the General Assembly revised the 21-day rule to allow the introduction of biological evidence.
Justice done late is better than justice done never. But nothing brings back the decades lost to unjust incarceration, not even large monetary awards. Washington received at least $1 million and reportedly as much as $2 million from the Commonwealth of Virginia for his wrongful conviction.
In a situation that rings similar to thousands of backlogged rape kits that the state has spent years testing and cataloging, notifying individuals whose case files included the old DNA samples and whose convictions were deemed worthy of review proved extraordinarily difficult and time-consuming. Some of those cases were 45 years old.
As the process wound down, those who remained incarcerated in Virginia were relatively easy to find. But over the years, others who completed their sentences may have moved out of state, left the country, changed their names, or died. Date-of-birth or Social Security information proved difficult or impossible to find. And how do you begin to locate that particular John Smith?
As crime commission staff member Christina Barnes Arrington said, this project has changed the lives of the 12 living former convicts and the 13 families involved. All were convicted of sex offenses and all but two were convicted based on mistaken witness identification. Until they were cleared, all were subject to inclusion on the state’s sexual offender registry.
In some cases, the actual perpetrator of the crime was identified thanks to these DNA database additions, and new leads in cold cases were generated.
Those involved in this long and challenging project should be commended for seeing it through. There’s no justice in doing time for a crime one didn’t commit.