Richmond Times-Dispatch


DNA evidence casts doubt on 1984 rape conviction

FRANK GREEN AND REED WILLIAMS TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITERS


Published: March 19, 2009

Doubt has been raised about a conviction in a series of rapes and other attacks against women in Richmond and Henrico County a quarter-century ago.

Recent testing in the Virginia Department of Forensic Science's groundbreaking post-conviction DNA project failed to find the genetic profile of Thomas E. Haynesworth, 43, in semen preserved from a Jan. 3, 1984, rape in Richmond.

The March 6 report from the state lab shows that the DNA profile obtained from the semen matches that of an offender's genetic profile stored in the state's DNA data bank -- but that person's name, prison number and other identifying information was redacted.

Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Michael N. Herring is investigating the developments and said yesterday that he could not comment on the identity of the offender in the state's data bank.

"If we develop probable cause that the new suspect committed the crime, then we're going to try to reconstruct the case and prosecute it," Herring said. "We are taking steps to compel a sample [usually a saliva swab] from the suspect so it can be fully analyzed," he said.

Haynesworth, serving 74 years, was one of two men convicted in assaults on women that alarmed the Richmond area in 1984.

Haynesworth faced charges in connection with attempted robberies and sexual assaults on women in the Fulton Hill and Montrose areas early that year. About 160 concerned residents met with police that January.

Virginia rape convictions cleared by DNA
  • Willie Davidson, exonerated in 2005, was convicted of the 1980 rape of a 66-year-old Norfolk woman and released from prison in 1992.
  • Philip Leon Thurman, exonerated in 2005, was convicted of the 1984 rape, abduction and assault of an Alexandria woman and was released on parole in 2004.
  • Marvin Anderson, exonerated in 2002, was convicted of the 1982 rape of an Ashland woman and served 15 years in prison before a DNA test cleared him.
  • Edward Honaker, exonerated in 1994, was convicted of a 1984 abduction and rape in Nelson County.
  • Julius Ruffin, exonerated in 2003, was convicted in 1982 of raping and sodomizing a Norfolk woman at knifepoint and was sentenced to five life terms.
  • Walter Snyder Jr., exonerated in 1993, was convicted in 1986 of raping a neighbor in Alexandria.
  • David Vasquez, exonerated in 1989 of the 1984 rape and murder of an Arlington County woman. Mildly retarded, Vasquez pleaded guilty to avoid a death sentence. He was freed when Timothy Spencer, known as the "South Side Strangler," was implicated.
  • Earl Washington Jr., exonerated in 2000, was sentenced to death for the 1982 rape and murder of a Culpeper woman. Washington, who is mildly retarded, initially confessed to the crime. He was cleared by DNA testing.
  • Troy Webb, exonerated in 1996, was convicted of the 1988 rape and robbery of a Virginia Beach woman.
  • Arthur Lee Whitfield, exonerated in 2004, was convicted of two 1981 rapes in Norfolk.

In addition to the Jan. 3, 1984, rape in Richmond, Haynesworth was convicted of a Jan. 30, 1984, rape, sodomy, sexual assault and abduction in Henrico; and a Feb. 1, 1984, abduction and attempted robbery in Richmond. A Richmond jury acquitted Haynesworth on charges he sodomized a woman on Jan. 21, 1984, at knifepoint.

In a more notorious case, Leon W. Davis, 45, the so-called "Black Ninja" rapist, is serving seven life terms for rapes, robberies and other 1984 crimes, also in Richmond and Henrico.

Reached by telephone at the Greensville Correctional Center this week, Haynesworth said he has maintained he was innocent from the day he was arrested and that he believes he knows who the rapist was.

"Nobody ever listened to me," he complained.

The absence of a suspect's DNA profile from a crime scene does not prove innocence, but it can call into question the accuracy of victim or eyewitness identification and raise reasonable doubt about guilt.

Ten Virginians convicted of rapes have been cleared -- and in several cases, the real attacker implicated -- by DNA testing.

A massive, first-of-its-kind DNA project launched by the Department of Forensic Science is aimed at clearing anyone else who may have been convicted wrongly of rape or other serious crimes in the 1970s and 1980s.

Shawn Armbrust with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which is assisting in the state lab's effort, met with Haynesworth yesterday and said the organization will be representing him. "It appears this was a case of mistaken identity," she said of the Richmond case.

The victim, who was 20 when the Jan. 3, 1984, rape occurred, could not be reached for comment.

She was attacked in an East End church day-care center where she worked. According to accounts of the trial, she picked Haynesworth's photograph out of a spread and identified him again in the courtroom.

Her assailant, armed with a knife, had broken into the center and was waiting when she arrived and turned on the lights shortly before 7 a.m. Haynesworth and his mother testified at his trial that he was home asleep when the attack occurred.

Armbrust said the Innocence Project also will be looking into Haynesworth's other convictions. His 1984 trial lawyer in Henrico, Robert J. Rice, could not immediately recall the case yesterday.

It is not clear if any DNA testing has been conducted or can be conducted in Haynesworth's other cases.

R.E. "Trip" Chalkley III, now the Hanover County commonwealth's attorney, represented Haynesworth in the Richmond trial. "He could not have been any more of a pleasure to represent," Chalkley said of Haynesworth.

"His mother was entirely devoted to him and convinced of his innocence," he said yesterday.

Herring said that if he is satisfied there is reasonable doubt that Haynesworth committed the crime, his office will seek to have a court vacate the sentencing order in the Richmond rape.

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Contact Frank Green at (804) 649-6340 or fgreen@timesdispatch.com.

Contact Reed Williams at (804) 649-6332 or rwilliams@timesdispatch.com.


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