Monday, September 26, 2011

Innocence and Decency v. The Court and The Law

I want to tell you about this guy, Thomas Haynesworth.
Thomas Haynesworth
Oh, wait.  That was then.  1984.  Accused & convicted multiple rapist.  Sentenced to 84 years in the slammer.
Thomas Haynesworth
This is now.  Released from prison on parole.  Because he's innocent.
Let me repeat that.  An innocent guy.  A guy who didn't commit those rapes.  You could ask anyone.
You could ask, for instance, the prosecutors from the counties in Virginia where the rapes occurred.  You could ask, for instance, Kenneth Cuccinelli who's the Virginia Attorney General.
You could ask pretty much anyone who knows anything about the case.
With a single exception.
First the back story.  John Schwartz, in yesterday's Times, lays it out.
He was arrested on suspicion of having committed five rapes and assaults in his neighborhood, and was tried for four of them. He was convicted in three and sentenced to 84 years in prison.
DNA has since proved that he did not commit two of the rapes he was tried for. The DNA from those two cases pointed to another man, in prison for having committed multiple rapes in the same neighborhood that occurred after Mr. Haynesworth’s arrest. That man, Leon Davis, who identified himself to victims as “the Black Ninja,” is serving multiple life terms plus 100 years.
. . .
Mr. Haynesworth’s fight for freedom began in 2009, when the state’s department of forensic evidence tested the DNA from the first rape as part of a broad review of old case files. The results cleared Mr. Haynesworth of that rape, and he received an exoneration on that charge later that year. Mr. Haynesworth’s lawyers at the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and the Innocence Project in New York, along with private lawyers, filed legal papers for Mr. Haynesworth with the Court of Appeals of Virginia to get a writ of actual innocence on the remaining convictions. Subsequent testing of the DNA from the trial in which Mr. Haynesworth was acquitted eliminated him — and again implicated Mr. Davis. 
There's no DNA to test from the other rapes, but he passed a couple of polygraphs.  And the circumstantial evidence that Haynesworth is factually innocent is compelling.
You could ask pretty much anyone who knows anything about the case.
With a single exception.
He got released, back in March.  After serving 27 years of his 84 year sentence.  Not as in charges-dismissed released.  As in paroled-sex-offender released.  Because that's all the Parole Board could do.  Which means he's under a cloud. On parole.  
He is classified as a paroled sex offender, and has to appear on public registries of rapists and other sexual miscreants. He has to inform the authorities in order to move from one home to another, and even had to request permission to visit his nieces.
“I’m out, but still not totally free,” he said. “It puts a cloud over your life.” 
And so he wants exoneration.  An official declaration of his innocence.  Which seems like it should be easy, since you could, as I say, ask anyone.
With a single exception.
Now Mr. Haynesworth, 46, is asking for full exoneration on all of the rape convictions, although DNA from the other two cases is not available. But the circumstantial evidence supporting Mr. Haynesworth’s claims of innocence is so powerful that along with his own lawyers, the prosecutors from both jurisdictions where the rapes occurred support his efforts, as well as the attorney general for the commonwealth, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli.
But there's that single exception.
With no one arguing against exoneration, most judges would be expected to congratulate Mr. Haynesworth on his new life, perhaps with an apology as well, and send him into daylight and freedom. But in July, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals of Virginia said, in essence, “Not so fast.” The court called for additional briefs in the case, which will be heard again on Tuesday by all of the judges of the court. 
I need to pause here and tell you a bit about Haynesworth himself.  He is, it seems, a man of extraordinary decency and character.  A man who somehow didn't get chewed up and spit out as damaged goods during his 27 years (27 years!) in prison for crimes he didn't commit.
I've actually written about him before, back in March, when he was released.  Here's part of what I said.
Thomas Haynesworth doesn't hate the women who wrongly identified him as the man who raped them.  Oh, sure, he spent 27 years in prison on their mistaken say so (DNA indicates that the rapist was one Leon Davis), but he can't blame them he told Maria Glod for the Washington Post.
“They have been through a tragedy,” he said. “What happened to them shouldn’t have happened to them. I blame the person who did this, Mr. Davis.”
Haynesworth seems, once again because it bears repeating, a man of extraordinary decency, of generosity of spirit.  But he's slammed up against an implacable system.  The Virginia legislature crafted a mechanism for obtaining a writ of exoneration, and that's what he seeks.  The standard for that is supposed to be high.  But the court is asking whether Haynesworth needs to prove his innocence "conclusively."
As Cuccinelli says, that's a standard that's pretty much impossible to meet without DNA.  Anyway, it's not what the legislature intended.  The statute itself requires a showing that “no rational trier of fact could have found proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”  
It's a common standard in criminal law, enormously difficult to satisfy, but not impossible.  And not the same as conclusive.
Haynesworth's problem is, on the one hand, peculiar to Virginia law since it turns on interpretation of a Virginia statute.  On the other hand, it's a problem the innocent face everywhere.  Proving the negative.  Made harder by the states' efforts to ensure it can't be done.
In a particularly arch footnote, Mr. Cuccinelli’s team added that since the state had disposed of the DNA evidence in the other cases, “it seems paradoxical to demand ‘conclusive’ evidence from Haynesworth when the commonwealth has deprived him of the opportunity to produce such evidence.” 
Evidence destroyed.  Evidence they won't let you test.  Evidence that's necessary to prove innocence but that's denied.
Because who really wants to know how we fucked up.  And how often.
Because there are all those other guys, just how many we don't know.  They're innocent, too.  But they don't have DNA.  And they don't have the prosecutors on their side.  Or their state's attorney general.  And even if they get released . . .  There's still that cloud that won't be lifted.  (See, for instance, Danny Brown.)
Regardless, Haynesworth is out of prison.  Schwartz says that he finds it "sweet."  And exonerated or not, he's got a job.  Working in Cuccinelli's office.
Which reminds me that along with Haynesworth's lawyers and the team from the Innocence Project who've worked on his case, and along with Haynesworth himself, there's some need to praise Cuccinelli, another guy who's doing the right thing.  At least this time.

Tomorrow, the court will be hearing Haynesworth's arguments.


  1. ...but he passed a couple of polygraphs.

    Polygraph results are generally inadmissible in court, and for good reason. All polygraph tests are highly dependent on the skill of the interrogator, plus there are people who can naturally pass a polygraph test or who have been trained to pass a polygraph test; there are others who will never pass.

    On the other hand, it's a problem the innocent face everywhere. Proving the negative.

    You can't prove a negative, and you know this. For example:
    Inquisitor: Mad Jack, have you ever been to Chicago?
    Mad Jack: No.
    Inquisitor: Prove it.

    Now just how the hell am I going to do that? I can't, because I cannot prove a negative. As a practicing attorney and erudite man, you know good and well that this is fact, yet by your essay you would have us all believe that such a law exists and hasn't been successfully challenged and summarily removed from our legal system. While I find it very easy to believe that State or Federal Legislators (most of whom are sanctimonious tyrants) would write and enact such a law, I expect the Justice system to be competent and moral enough to challenge it as soon as it becomes law. Sooner, if possible.

    Most of your post is well taken and puts the gorilla in the living room directly in the limelight, but you fail to name the cause of the problem. Law is written and brought into being by State and Federal elected officials, some of whom are not terribly bright, most of whom are completely without empathy or mercy and none of whom are concerned with anything except being reelected. Maybe if you would explain to the Great Unwashed just how and why this is a problem in 50 words or less while constraining your prose to a Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level of, say, five, the nation might begin moving towards a change for the better.

    You think?

  2. Yeah, but it would take all the fun out of doing this if I had to write to grade level.