Monday, October 3, 2011

Lawyers argue Haynesworth's innocence before Appeals Court

Prosecutors in Richmond and Henrico County, as well as Virginia's attorney general, all believe Thomas E. Haynesworth is innocent.

Now it's up to the nine judges on the Virginia Court of Appeals.

The court on Tuesday heard arguments from Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and lawyers from the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project on behalf of Haynesworth, who is seeking writs of actual innocence to clear his name of crimes officials now believe, thanks to DNA evidence, that he did not commit.

Haynesworth, 46, who spent 27 years behind bars before being paroled by Gov. Bob McDonnell in March, attended the 30-minute hearing, during which judges questioned how much weight should be given to testimony from eyewitnesses that was used to convict him in 1984.

"I just want it to be over, move on with my life and put it behind me," the soft-spoken Haynesworth said after the hearing.

The judges also wanted guidance on how much emphasis should be placed on the fact that the state's attorney general, who would normally be in the position of defending a conviction, is fully convinced of Haynesworth's innocence.

Lawyers argued that it should be given great weight, noting that support for Haynesworth's innocence is supported by DNA evidence, based on thorough investigation and backed by commonwealth's attorneys whose offices previously prosecuted him. Given the evidence, neither would do so today.

"It's definitely unusual, but we were there for a reason," said Cuccinelli, saying he believed it was his duty under the law to argue for Haynesworth. "We believe there was a miscarriage of justice. It is our job to try to fix it."

For years, law-enforcement agencies have maintained that the same person committed a series of sex assaults in the Richmond neighborhood where Haynesworth lived.

Because DNA evidence has exonerated Haynesworth in two of the cases and implicated another neighborhood man — convicted serial rapist Leon Davis — who bore a resemblance to Haynesworth, lawyers argued that eyewitness testimony linking Haynesworth to the crimes in Henrico and Richmond was similarly mistaken.

Haynesworth remains convicted in two cases for which there are no biological tests that can be conducted. Davis, who is serving more than 100 years in prison, has refused to discuss the case.

The Court of Appeals must conclude that, given the new evidence, no reasonable juror would find Haynesworth guilty. There is no timetable for the court's decision. It can grant the writs of actual innocence, reject them or refer the cases to the circuit courts for further review.

Though he is a free man today, without the writs Haynesworth must remain registered as a sex offender and is subject to the laws governing them.

"Thomas is out right now," said Shawn Armbrust, a Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project lawyer who argued before the panel. "But he isn't free."

She said the organization would appeal the case to the Virginia Supreme Court if Haynesworth's petition is rejected.

"Twenty-seven years of my life has been taken," said Haynesworth, who now works at the attorney general's office.

"I want [the judges] to take consideration of what I have been through."

By Jim Nolan

Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch

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