New York Times


February 5, 2010
Vindication Now Arrives After a Battle of 28 Years
By A. G. SULZBERGER


Freddie Peacock and his attorneys
Freddie Peacock, center, with by Olga Akselrod and Peter Neufeld, lawyers from the Innocence Project who help exonerate him.

He had proclaimed his innocence, to no avail, at his trial and sentencing and in his five years behind bars.

And when he was released from prison, Freddie Peacock, a churchgoing Rochester, N.Y., man with severe mental illness, persisted in what would become the defining mission of his difficult life: convince the world that he was not, in fact, guilty of rape.

“He talked about it all the time,” said his older sister, Edith Leonard. “Sometimes I would say to myself, ‘He needs to let it go,’ because it would constantly eat him up and it worried me.”

But for the next 28 years, Mr. Peacock refused to drop the subject, professing his innocence to anyone who would listen: family and friends, those who never doubted him and those who were not so sure. He even begged his parole officer not to release him from state supervision, fearing the action would undermine his many appeals.

On Thursday, sitting stoically in the same courthouse where long ago he was convicted of a rape he did not commit, Mr. Peacock, 60, received the exoneration he so passionately sought.

With barely a comment, Judge David D. Egan of the State Supreme Court in Rochester vacated the 1977 conviction in the face of new DNA testing that proved Mr. Peacock’s innocence. Neither the judge nor the prosecutor directly addressed Mr. Peacock during the five-minute procedure, and neither offered an apology. Mr. Peacock spoke only once, at the end. “Thank you, Your Honor,” he said.

It was not until leaving the courtroom that Mr. Peacock, dressed in a gray suit, was overtaken by the emotion of the moment. He sat down and began to cry. He walked to the courthouse lobby, where the tears resumed and he sat down again to compose himself. “He wouldn’t let this go,” Ms. Leonard said on behalf of her brother, who declined to speak to reporters. “Maybe now he can go on with his life.”

Ms. Leonard said she was not sure whether the family would file a lawsuit. “We’re going to get through today,” she said. “After that, I really don’t know.”

The Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, a nonprofit group that uses DNA evidence to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, took on Mr. Peacock’s case after receiving a nine-page, handwritten letter from him seven years ago. The letter contained a plea that easily could have been lost in the disturbed writing surrounding it: “I would like to clear my name.”

The Innocence Project said that the decision holds several distinctions. Mr. Peacock was the 250th person nationwide to be exonerated by DNA evidence, according to officials. His request for help was the only entreaty for assistance the legal team had ever received from a person who had already completed a sentence and been taken off parole. The case also nearly triples the record for the most time that passed between a prisoner’s release, which occurred on May 13, 1982, and his exoneration, according to the project’s lawyers.

“His spirit to never give up in his quest for justice, it’s remarkable, it’s inspirational,” said Peter J. Neufeld, a co-director of the Innocence Project. “Most people would just walk away from it. Most people would just go on. He made it the single-minded objective of his life to clear his name and say ‘I am not a rapist.’ ”

Mr. Peacock was arrested in July 1976 when a woman who was attacked and raped outside her Rochester apartment building identified Mr. Peacock, who also lived in the building, as the assailant. After initially denying involvement, Mr. Peacock, who had received diagnoses of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and had not taken his medication in five months, confessed during a police interrogation that was not recorded. Mr. Peacock was unable to provide any details of the crime, including where, when or how it had occurred, and later recanted his confession. A jury convicted him in six hours.

Mr. Peacock appealed the case unsuccessfully six times. He was taken off parole in 1992, against his wishes, after years of refusing to be considered for early release. “When he talks about his case, it feels like he’s talking about something that didn’t happen that long ago,” said Olga Akselrod, who handled the case for the Innocence Project. “He knew he was innocent, and to have the system not believe him was very painful. So he kept fighting.”

On Thursday, after the hearing and a short news conference, Mr. Peacock skipped his usual Bible study class to attend a small party his sister had planned so he could celebrate with friends who had heard his proclamations of innocence over the years.

“I remember his words,” said the Rev. Juanita Sheffield, 58, a childhood friend and the pastor of God’s Holy Temple in Rochester, where Mr. Peacock attends church. He said, she recalled: “I just want my name cleared, even though I served my time and they let me go. I just want my name cleared.”

Paul Lane contributed reporting.


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