High court grants ‘writ of actual innocence’

Order in ’84 rape case first based on biological evidence

By Sarah, Abruzzese, Washington Times – 9/19/2009

The Virginia Supreme Court granted a highly unusual “writ of actual innocence” Friday after DNA evidence exonerated a man convicted of a 1984 rape in Richmond.
This marks the first time the court has granted a “writ of actual innocence” based on biological evidence. The Supreme Court also ordered that the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond immediately expunge the record of Thomas Edward Haynesworth, the man wrongfully convicted.

Mr. Haynesworth is currently incarcerated; in addition to the 1984 rape, he was convicted of another rape and several other crimes.

Attorney General Bill Mims’ office had supported his exoneration and asked the court to expedite the request.

“This case highlights the effectiveness of the actual-innocence statute. When there is compelling evidence of actual innocence, our office works quickly and diligently to ensure that justice is done,” Mr. Mims said in a statement.

L. Steven Emmert, an appellate lawyer and the publisher of the legal Web site Virginia Appellate News and Analysis, said such writs are relatively new to Virginia law.

“The reason we have this is Virginia used to have an extraordinarily strict 21-day deadline. After 21 days, there was nothing you could do within the judicial system, even if you could prove you were innocent. The only thing you could do was go to the governor to ask for clemency,” Mr. Emmert said.

There are two kinds of “writs of actual innocence,” he said. The writ based on biological evidence, which is what Mr. Haynesworth requested, was passed in 2001 and is heard by the Supreme Court; the other, based on non-biological evidence, was passed in 2004 and is heard by the Virginia Court of Appeals.

“In a situation where the petitioner can demonstrate that he’s not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, then … he ought to get the relief,” Mr. Emmert said.

DNA analysis was conducted as part of an ongoing review by the state Department of Forensic Science, which excluded Mr. Haynesworth as the perpetrator and instead implicated another man, who is serving time for other sexual assaults.

On Friday, the court also released 15 opinions on a variety topics, including two cases pertaining to the death penalty.