Witness

A blog about forensic psychology

What Does It Take to Prove One's Innocence?

Catch-22: State destroyed evidence it requires to clear his name

One Sunday morning in February 1984, Thomas Haynesworth's mother sent him to the Trio supermarket to pick up some bread and sweet potatoes. He never got there. Instead, he was stopped and questioned in connection with a recent rape. That began a 27-year odyssey through false accusation, arrest, prison and pain.

Thomas Haynesworth hugs his mother. Photo: P. Kevin Morley, Richmond Times-Dispatch
So begins yet another Kafkaesque story set in the United States, whose criminal justice system seems to have gone totally berserk. When I was traveling abroad this summer, overseas colleagues expressed amazement about practices they've heard about in our country -- juveniles sent to prison for life, young men placed on lifelong sex offender registries for consensual relationships with teen girlfriends, criminal prosecution of young children. Last week's execution of Troy Davis despite mounting doubts about his guilt is the latest case that has international observers scratching their heads.

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But the Haynesworth case is unusual in that prosecutors and even a state attorney general are going to bat for the wrongfully convicted man, yet that still isn't enough to get him an exoneration.

To recap the facts:

When he was 18, Haynesworth was arrested for five rapes in his neighborhood. He had no criminal record, but that didn't matter. He was prosecuted for four rapes, convicted of three, and sentenced to 84 years in prison.

Two years ago, a broad review of old cases in Virginia turned up a DNA match to a serial rapist who was already in prison for a string of rapes that occurred in that same neighborhood after Haynesworth's arrest.

Haynesworth was released this March, on his 46th birthday, and everyone thought his exoneration would follow swiftly.

But, no.

Instead of apologizing to Haynesworth for robbing him of most of his adult life, what is the court doing? It's asking for more proof of innocence.

Haynesworth after his release. Photo credit: P. Kevin Morley
Only, there's a slight catch: The state has disposed of the DNA evidence from the other rapes, evidence that could conclusively clear his name.

"It seems paradoxical to demand 'conclusive' evidence from Haynesworth when the commonwealth has deprived him of the opportunity to produce such evidence," said the attorney general of Virginia, a staunch conservative who has even given Haynesworth a job in his office.

Meanwhile, as his bid for exoneration languishes on, Haynesworth must remain on the sex offender registry, with all of the stigma and restrictions that carries. He cannot move without permission, and he must even get approval to visit his nieces.

The trial penalty

This is yet the latest in a string of similar cases focusing public attention on the reliability problems plaguing eyewitness identification and, more broadly, on racial inequities in the administration of justice here in the Land of the Free.

But things are likely to get worse before they get better. That's because across the United States, legal changes have concentrated more and more power in the hands of prosecutors, who can now coerce defendants into pleading guilty by threatening much harsher penalties for those who insist on a trial.

As Richard Oppel reports in an in-depth analysis in the New York Times, prosecutors now wield more discretionary power than judges, and are using that power to punish defendants for exercising their right to a trial:

Threats of harsher charges against defendants who reject plea deals often are the most influential factor in the outcome of a case, but this interplay is never reflected in official data.

Even defendants with winnable cases are opting to plead guilty because the stakes are so high if they lose. The ratio of guilty pleas to trials has doubled in the past two decades, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics reported by Oppel. And the number of acquittals in federal cases has dropped even more dramatically, from one out of every 22 cases 30 years ago to only one out of 212 last year.

So if a young Haynesworth came along today and had the audacity to insist that he was innocent and wanted a trial, he would likely be punished with multiple life prison terms, rather than a mere 84 years.

In the end, we may never know how many Haynesworths are being sentenced every year based on faulty eyewitness identification and/or racially biased prosecution.

  • New York Times reporter John Schwartz's only-in-America report on the Haynesworth case is HERE.
  • Richard Oppel's excellent report, Sentencing Shift Gives New Leverage to Prosecutors, is HERE.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D., is a forensic psychologist in Northern California.

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