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Justice after injustice: What happens after a wrongfully convicted person is exonerated—and the witness finds out she identified the wrong man

October 5, 2015

from the article by Lara Bazelon in Slate:

….On Feb. 5, 1984, the police picked up Thomas Haynesworth, a teenager who was on his way to the store on orders from his mother to buy sweet potatoes for Sunday dinner. Haynesworth, a self-described “goody two-shoes and peacemaker” who aspired to be a police officer, had no criminal record whatsoever. But a woman who was raped under circumstances similar to Burke’s had seen him and called the police, saying she recognized him as her attacker. When Burke was brought down to the police station to make identification, she thought she did, too. “I was positive,” she said. “I never second-guessed myself one bit.” Burke’s confidence was buoyed when the police told her a blood test showed Haynesworth was a match for her rapist….

Haynesworth was charged with Burke’s rape and three other crimes, all of which involved kidnapping, rape, or attempted rapes within a 1-mile radius of the East End Church. The charges were literally incomprehensible to Haynesworth: His mother had to explain to him what “sodomy” and “abduction” meant. But he knew he was innocent and remained hopeful that the jurors would believe his side of the story—that he was at home asleep. He prayed that Burke would realize she had made a terrible mistake.

None of that happened at the trial. “What stood out to me,” Haynesworth said, “was that she said I had a face she would never forget. That she was positive. It hurt more than the actual accusation.” Haynesworth was convicted, then convicted in two of the remaining cases and acquitted in a third. On Sept. 11, 1984, the judge sentenced him to 74 years in prison. He was 19….

In 2009, the police came to Burke’s house with news that was simply beyond her belief. Thomas Haynesworth was not her rapist; Leon Davis Jr. was. DNA proved it. Burke protested, reminding them that she had been told Haynesworth was a match in 1984. The police explained that back then, the test could reveal only that Haynesworth and Leon Davis had the same blood type—as did millions of other Americans. This new kind of DNA testing was different and much more precise. There was essentially no chance that the rapist was anyone other than Davis.

Denial gave way to shame, horror, and despair, as Burke realized that she was both a crime victim and, in some way, a perpetrator. Her mistaken identification had contributed to a miscarriage of justice that cost a man 27 years of his life….

Baliga was skeptical. Restorative justice demands that the offender take responsibility for the wrongdoing, and in her eyes, none of these men and women had done anything wrong. “The exonerees really were blameless, and the crime victims really were victims,” she said. “It was impossible to hold any of them accountable, particularly those who had followed every proper legal procedure and had the state validate their actions.”

But the urgency behind Onek and Thompson’s request and undeniable, unmet needs of exonerees and crime victims ultimately swayed Baliga. The restorative justice theory—shared suffering, mutual understanding, forgiveness, and a will to move forward with positive concrete action—could be made to fit the circumstances of a false conviction case. Baliga explained that those affected by wrongful convictions had “the wisdom and learned experience to heal very broken things that the legal system did not have the capacity to address, much less repair.”….

Read the whole article.


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