One of the subjects of Netflix's "The Innocence Files" was sentenced to prison on rape charges based on the testimony of victims who were certain he was their assailant.
Yet, as it turns out, the true assailant would continue attacking women while Thomas Haynesworth went to prison.
Haynesworth was 18 years old and had no criminal record to his name when he was accused of series of sexual assaults that took place over a month in early 1984. He was identified by one of the victims, who saw him walking down the street and believed he matched her memory of what the attacker looked like, according to The Innocence Project.
Haynesworth was convicted based on the testimony of one of the victims, Janet Burke, who sincerely believed he was the man that attacked her — despite the fact that there was no evidence that placed him at the crime scene. Haynesworth recounts in the docuseries that once he was convicted of the first rape, it became easier for juries to believe he was guilty of the other rapes he was accused of committing.
Haynesworth was ultimately sentenced to a total of 74 years in prison after being convicted of three rapes.
"I went in at the age of 18. My name had been drug through the mud, my character had been assassinated, and I'm in a place where I did nothing to put myself there," Haynesworth told the docuseries.
But as the docuseries notes, the sexual assaults continued — with the perpetrator, newly emboldened, daring his victims to call the police and tell them it was the work of the "Black Ninja." Initially, authorities believed there was another rapist and not that police had arrested the wrong person.
Interestingly enough, Haynesworth suggested the name of a potential suspect, his neighbor Leon Davis, who was the actual perpetrator behind it all.
Davis was arrested in 1984 and eventually convicted of rape, robbery, and malicious wounding, according to the docuseries. He was given multiple life sentences, but authorities did not initially link him to the rapes Haynesworth was wrongly convicted of committing, so Haynesworth remained in prison.
It wasn't until DNA exonerations became more common around the country that Haynesworth's case gained a second look. Innocence Project co-founder Peter Neufeld was representing a client named Marvin Anderson, who was eventually exonerated after the state discovered unused DNA samples kept by a lab technician that proved Anderson's innocence.
As a result, then-Gov. Mark Warner ordered a statewide audit, which eventually became Virginia's Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program and Notification Project, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Haynesworth petitioned to be tested under the program, and he received the test in 2009 — nearly 25 years since he was sentenced to prison. He soon received legal representation in Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project Executive Director Shawn Armbrust.
When the results came in, Haynesworth was overjoyed — the testing showed that genetic material from the first rape was not a match to his DNA.
"It came back, like one in one trillion, and said, 'You are not the person who committed this crime,'" Haynesworth told "The Innocence Files."
The results "eliminated" Haynesworth as a suspect, and they also contained a redacted record of the actual perpetrator.
"[O]n top of the letter, it had black marked out the name of the perpetrator ... I didn't have to see it to know who it was: Leon Davis," he told the docuseries.
It was later confirmed that Davis had attacked the first victim, according to a 2009 report from The News & Advance newspaper.
Although Haynesworth was exonerated in the first case by DNA evidence, he still had two subsequent convictions where there was no DNA evidence to point toward.
The Innocence Project and Haynesworth's attorneys then found a new ally in the fight to prove Haynesworth's innocence in the remaining cases: then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who is currently the acting Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under President Donald Trump.
"Knowing that one mistake had been made and knowing it had been made on the basis of witness misidentification certainly leads you to question the others," Cuccinelli told the docuseries. "No AG that I had ever known of had sided with the defendant in the absence of scientific evidence."
While Haynesworth was awaiting his appeal, he was released from prison on parole. Cuccinelli hired Haynesworth in the AG office's mail and supply room while he awaited the outcome of his case, Armbrust confirmed to Oxygen.com.
What Happened To Thomas Haynesworth?
Ultimately, his case was appealed for exoneration in 2014, after he had spent 27 years in prison.
Haynesworth's lawyers made a persuasive case. He was exonerated by a panel of 10 appellate judges, with six of the justices ruling in his favor in 2011 and granting writs of innocence, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Armbrust told Oxygen.com that Haynesworth's case drew an unprecedented and uncommon amount of support from the offices that originally prosecuted him, and that recognition helped him heal from the trauma of his wrongful imprisonment.
"He was just universally acknowledged as innocent," Armbrust told Oxygen.com. "It's unusual to have that happen."
Burke later met with Haynesworth in 2014 and publicly identified herself as a victim of sexual assault, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Haynesworth and Burke have spoken together on a number of panels pushing to promote better suspect identification through witness testimony, and they have also worked to support victims of false identification. One of their talks is featured in the docuseries, with Haynesworth demonstrating an understanding that the system failed both himself and Davis' victims.
"When I first met her, when I walked in the room, she just started crying," Haynesworth recounts during the talk with Burke. "She's apologizing, she's sorry about what she did right? And I told her, 'you don't need to apologize because we both were victims of the system.'"
"Every day it harps on my heart that I was so sure it was him," Burke tells the docuseries, explaining she's had to heal from her own trauma as well as reckon with how the system initially failed both her and Haynesworth.
"I know what that crime did to me and I know what that crime did to Thomas," Burke tells the filmmakers. "What I know now, it's the system that's broken, it's not me."
Haynesworth still works in the state Attorney General's Office and has been promoted a number of times, Armbrust told Oxygen.com.
The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project has undertaken a number of other cases for review since Haynesworth's exonerations, numbering in the thousands, Armbrust told Oxygen.com.
She pointed to the 2015 exoneration of Michael McAlister — who was wrongfully convicted of an abduction and attempted rape that was committed by a similar looking serial rapist — as stemming from work in Haynesworth's case.
"Thomas' case really laid the foundation," Armbrust told Oxygen.com. The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project's work has helped free 21 people from prison, according to Armbrust's website.
"The Innocence Files" is currently available to stream on Netflix.
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