Detroit Free Press

May 20, 2008

After nearly 26 years in prison, man to go free in rape case


It took a few years before Janice Nobliski could sleep through the night, but still the former cop’s conscience kept gnawing — Walter Swift, an innocent man, was in prison. And she was partly to blame.

“People kill and get 10 years and here Walter Swift was doing 20 to 40 for a rape he didn’t do,” said Nobliski. “I’ve suffered about this, but nothing like Walter Swift. He was just 21, and his whole life is gone.”

After almost 26 years in prison, Swift is expected to leave Wayne County Circuit Court Wednesday a free man, officially cleared of raping a pregnant mother who was surprised in her Indian Village home as she played with her infant child.

A joint motion by the Innocence Project and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office is to be presented to Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Vera Massey Jones Wednesday to set aside Swift’s conviction -- one based on what authorities now concede was a shaky identification.

“Oh, this is great,” Nobliski said today. “This is great.”

Swift Timeline

A new kind of victory

While the Project — headed by lawyer Barry Scheck, who gained national celebrity as a member of O.J. Simpson’s legal dream team — has used DNA evidence to clear more than 200 imprisoned persons, this is the first rape case they have overturned primarily because of faulty eyewitness testimony.

The Free Press could not reach the rape victim today, though in earlier conversations with the paper she said she remained convinced that Swift raped her. He had written to her, she said, and his attempts to free himself brought back the horror of the attack.

In a statement, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said her office is not calling Swift innocent, but said there is now “some doubt about the fairness of the original trial.”

Project attorney Olga Akselrod said Swift, 47, will likely feel like other freed inmates, “like Rip Van Winkle. He’s never held a cell phone or used a computer. The Internet is something he’s seen on TV and in the movies. The Detroit and world he knew is gone.”

The Innocence Project presented Worthy with an array of troubling issues in Swift’s prosecution, from the lineup in which Swift was first identified; to lab tests that – while not definitive – seemed to point to Swift’s innocence; to lab reports the prosecutor handling the case said he never received.

In September 1982, a lawyer’s young wife was playing with their child on the sunny second floor of their imposing home in Indian Village.

The woman was a few months pregnant and still in her robe that morning when a young man entered. She was raped twice and robbed.

After the attack, investigators collected semen samples from her robe and a bedspread, and the woman was interviewed by detective Nobliski, a 13-year veteran of the Detroit Police sex crimes unit. The victim described her attacker as a thin young man 15 to 18 years old, clean shaven with hair fixed in braids and small poofs.

Looking through mug shots, she pointed to seven men with some features similar to her attacker. Nobliski decided to hold a line-up using the next man the victim pointed out.

“It was Walter,” she said. “There was nothing special about that identification compared with the other men she pointed out.”

Nobliski added: “And that’s how Walter was picked. It was my fault.”

Swift was 21 with short hair a full moustache and sideburns.

At the line-up, the victim pointed to Swift saying she believed it was Swift as she believed in God.

Nobliski said she thought the identification was weak and scheduled a polygraph for Swift. She then took a vacation. On her return, she found the polygraph cancelled, Swift charged, and learned that she would be taken off the case.

At trial, assistant prosecutor Walter Piszczatowski argued that the victim picked out Swift only after examining 500-plus pictures.

It was only after being contacted by the Innocence Project, he said, that he learned of the other seven men cited by the rape victim.

Nobliski told the Innocence Project that Swift’s defense lawyer, Lawrence Greene, did not press her about her about the method used to identify Swift on cross examination.

Swift was convicted by a Detroit Recorder’s Court jury and given 20-40 years. Nobliski was transferred to street patrol; a move she said came after she raised doubts about the case.

In 1998, Swift contacted the Innocence Project, which uses scientific advances in DNA to review old cases.

Looking through Swift’s case, the project investigators found the semen samples had long been destroyed. But they found old lab reports suggesting that the less sophisticated biological tests used in 1982 pointed away from Swift, although not with DNA certainty.

“When the Project called me, I thought ‘Oh! Justice is going to be done now,’” Nobliski said. “But it still took years.”

Piszczatowski – who became a federal prosecutor before entering private practice – said Tuesday he didn’t know about Nobliski concerns or the lab tests pointing away from Swift.

Last year, Scheck and his team met with Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who agreed to take a fresh look.

Greene, Swift’s defense lawyer, later lost his law license after mishandling other cases. He said today he found it “unreal” it took so long for him to win Swift's release.

“I liked Walter,” Greene said, “and I hope he has a long and happy life.”

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