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A Black Louisiana man who spent nearly four decades in prison after he was wrongly convicted as a teenager in a 1986 rape was exonerated this week.
Sullivan Walter, 53, was freed from Elayn Hunt Correction Center on Thursday after a state district judge tossed his conviction in the decades-old case, ABC News reported.
Walter, who was “inadvertently misidentified” as the perpetrator of the sexual assault, spent the longest known time — 35 years — of any teen wrongfully convicted and incarcerated in the state, according to NOLA.com. (He had been facing 35 years in the rape case and four years for a contemporaneous burglary conviction that still stands.)
At Thursday’s hearing, district Judge Darryl Derbigny, assailed the case’s original prosecutors and Walter’s former defense attorneys for failing to present exculpatory evidence — including blood and semen — to the jury that could have cleared his name at his initial trial and subsequent appeal.
“To say this was unconscionable is an understatement,” Derbigny told Walter during the hearing, per ABC News.
“This is horrible,” the judge added. "I’m at a loss of words to express the sorrow and the anger I have at the treatment you’ve been dealt by the system.”
Walter was accused of being the man who broke into a woman’s home in the Lower Garden District in May 1986, holding a knife to her throat and sexually assaulting her. The victim’s 8-year-old son, who was inside the home at the time, slept through the violent incident. The partially masked assailant threatened to harm the woman’s child if she didn’t comply with his demands.
Walter was misidentified as the rapist in the case by the victim via a photo line-up after he was arrested for an unrelated burglary, per NOLA.com.
He was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison on the rape charges after a one-day trial.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Walter said of the original trial proceedings. “I couldn’t believe this was happening to me.”
The case’s victim, who was only identified by the initials “L.S.,” has since died, officials said. The deceased woman’s now-adult son reportedly lamented Walter’s wrongful conviction when contacted by prosecutors.
“There were some red flags that the eyewitness testimony could well have been unreliable,” prosecutor Emily Maw said in court this week.
“In this case, L.S. was being asked to make a cross-racial identification of someone who, at all the times that she could observe him, was either masked, in an unlit room at night, and/or threatening her not to look at him,” court documents cited by ABC stated. In addition, L.S. was not shown a photo array containing Mr. Walter until over six weeks after the crime.”
Prosecutors said the case’s original investigators wrongly zeroed in on Walter from the investigation’s early stages and ignored crucial forensic evidence that could have exonerated him: Walter's blood didn't match the blood type of the rapist, as determined by the semen left at the scene.
Walter’s exoneration is the product of a joint collaboration by the New Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office and Innocence Project New Orleans.
“What is unusual about this case is how little effort was made to hide the injustice being done to Mr. Walter,” Innocence Project New Orleans Legal Director Richard Davis said in a statement sent to Oxygen.com.
“The lawyers and law enforcement involved acted as if they believed that they could do what they chose to a Black teenager from a poor family and would never be scrutinized or held to account," Davis added. "This is not just about individuals and their choices, but the systems that let them happen.”
Following his release Thursday, Walter said he planned to visit Washington, D.C. to visit the Martin Luther King memorial.
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