Thomas Haynesworth was released from a Virginia prison Monday after serving 27 years for rapes he did not commit. The Hogan Lovells attorneys who worked pro bono to help free Haynesworth said the case has been one of the most rewarding experiences of their careers.
Firm partner Ellen Kennedy and associate Thomas Widor worked alongside attorneys from the national Innocence Project and the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, nonprofit legal groups dedicated to freeing wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA evidence and legal reforms.
Haynesworth, who is black, was arrested in 1984 at age 18 and charged in the rape and attempted rape of five white women. Haynesworth insisted he was innocent, but he was found guilty in three of the cases.
As DNA testing became more common, however, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner ordered a review of a number of cases from the 1970s and 1980s, according to Widor. Through this review, investigators discovered that another man also convicted in 1984 in a series of rapes, Leon Davis, had committed at least one of the rapes attributed to Haynesworth.
The two nonprofits reached out to Hogan Lovells around 2008 to help litigate old cases in which new DNA testing revealed that the wrong person had been convicted, Widor said.
“I think the [nonprofits] do tremendous work in an area that’s somewhat underserved when it comes to pro bono needs,” he said.
Haynesworth was officially exonerated in the one case in which DNA testing proved he was not the perpetrator, but Widor, Kennedy and the Innocence Project attorneys are seeking writs of actual innocence from the Court of Appeals of Virginia in the other two cases, as well. State and local prosecutors have determined that Haynesworth was innocent in the other two cases, Kennedy said, even though there wasn’t evidence available for DNA testing.
Kennedy said that while Haynesworth was freed yesterday on parole, he will still qualify as a convicted sex offender until the court grants the motions to officially exonerate him. Virginia prosecutors have expressed their support for full exoneration.
“The question was, ‘How we get him exonerated in the two cases from which we could not find any biological evidence?” Kennedy said. “There was an investigative phase, we worked with the prosecutors – it was a remarkable collaborative effort.”
Oral arguments are scheduled for March 30 in the Virginia appeals court.