'So this is what it looks like'
After 18 years in prison, man believed to be innocent in 1986 case marvels at freedom
BY JAMIE C. RUFF AND REX SPRINGSTON
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITERS
Friday, August 20, 2004
VICTORIA - Michael McAlister walked out of prison and into the arms of his family after serving 18 years for a crime that the prosecutor and the lead investigator in the case now doubt he committed.
Denied parole and pardon, McAlister left because he had served his time.
Hugging his mother, Rebecca McAlister, and sister, Denise Haas, and surrounded by other relatives, McAlister walked out of Lunenburg Correctional Center yesterday morning and headed to Haas' Powhatan County house for some home cooking.
Moments out of prison, McAlister said he had not had time to decide what he felt, but assured his family, "It's going to be all right."
Turning to look at the prison that had been his residence since June 1999, McAlister drew a laugh from his family when he said, "So this is what it looks like out here."
McAlister, 48, was convicted of abduction and attempted rape in South Richmond in 1986 but has maintained he did not do it.
Because the crime was an attempted rape, there was no DNA evidence. The victim identified McAlister as her attacker in a photo spread and in the courtroom.
But since the conviction, C.M. Martin, who investigated the case as a Richmond police detective, said he believes McAlister is innocent and that a more likely perpetrator was a serial rapist who strongly resembles McAlister and is now serving a life sentence for an unrelated rape.
Former Richmond Commonwealth's At- torney Joseph D. Morrissey says he, too, doubts McAlister was guilty.
Both men spoke to the Virginia State Parole Board on McAlister's behalf, but he was repeatedly turned down for parole. Gov. Mark R. Warner turned down a request for a pardon.
Morrissey, who now lives in Sydney, Australia, wrote in an e-mail message this week: "While I am pleased that McAlister is getting out, I am disappointed that it was only due to mandatory release. I can understand his bitterness and hatred. Please tell him that I wish him Godspeed in all of his pursuits and that I wish him the best."
The victim picked out McAlister's photo, but the photo lineup did not initially include a picture of the serial rapist, who is now serving life in prison for other attacks. He was free on bond at the time of the crime that McAlister was convicted of.
McAlister was given a 35-year sentence. He was released because his term, under old rules that have since changed, was mostly over.
Yesterday at the prison, attorney Michael Morchower said he hopes to locate the victim to prove McAlister's innocence absolutely. "He should be exonerated."
Morchower called it "very disturbing" that the parole board failed to release McAlister.
"It's almost unprecedented for the lead prosecutor and lead investigator in the case to now say they have doubts about the validity of the conviction," Morchower said. "You just don't have that where they go before the parole board and say, 'I think we have a miscarriage of justice.'"
After McAlister left the world of bars and razor wire, he headed to the two-story house of his sister and her husband in a wooded subdivision in Powhatan. He tasted freedom in the form of filet mignon, corn on the cob, potato salad and his mother's homemade chocolate pound cake with French vanilla ice cream.
It was a mostly joyous occasion, with the mood shifting from humor, to sadness over 18 lost years, to relief over McAlister's release.
Over the lunch table with a half-dozen family members, some quizzed McAlister like he was a latter-day Rip Van Winkle. What had changed in 18 years?
McAlister went into prison before cell phones were popular. (He had borrowed one and couldn't figure out how to turn it off.) Before the Internet. Before CDs were commonplace.
Before McAlister was locked up, one of the big places to shop locally was Cloverleaf Mall, now largely vacant.
On his first day out of prison, McAlister saw something many people don't notice - simple freedom. "The first thing that struck me was people walking around like it's nothing."
McAlister's brother-in-law, Matt Haas, asked if people could turn right on a red light before McAlister went to prison.
McAlister, who hadn't been gone that long, deadpanned, "Sure, but you had to bring the horse to a full stop."
McAlister's mother, Rebecca, 70, has been in ill health the past 12 years, with two heart attacks and breast cancer, among other problems. Her son's imprisonment was horrible, she said, but her opposition to it gave her reason to live. "This experience has kept me hanging on."
McAlister, a lean man with sandy-gray hair and a mustache, was simultaneously the center of attention at the table and an observer of the new world around him. He wore denim shorts and a reddish T-shirt with "Cape Hatteras" on it.
He and his mother like to fish, and they plan to go to Hatteras, N.C., soon.
McAlister, who is divorced, has two daughters. They were 4 and 6 when he went to prison. Both are in Florida, and one, 22-year-old Becky Godwin, plans to visit next month with McAlister's 2-year-old grandson, William.
McAlister plans to live with his mother in her Chesterfield County home. He said he has lined up a job as a telemarketer.
Near the end of the meal, McAlister tried to describe the feeling of going in prison and seeing the world you know slip away.
"It feels like you've fallen off the back of a ship and you're drowning and you're screaming and nobody's listening, and you just watch that boat getting smaller and smaller and smaller."
McAlister and his family are ecstatic that he is getting back on solid ground.
Contact Jamie C. Ruff at (434) 517-0997 or firstname.lastname@example.org