December 10, 2001

DNA Clears Virginia Man of 1982 Assault


WASHINGTON, Dec. 9 — Nineteen years too late in the view of Marvin Lamont Anderson, a new Virginia law that allows felons to seek exoneration on the basis of modern DNA testing has cleared him of a rape conviction that civil rights protesters have long complained was steeped in rural racism.

"A verbal apology would be nice," Mr. Anderson said on Friday, a day after learning that genetic testing had cleared him of a 1982 rape in Hanover County, Va. His lawyers said that his being a black man there with a white girlfriend unfairly made him the prime suspect.

"And then I'd like my name scratched from the state computer files still listing me for the heinous crime of rape," said Mr. Anderson, a 37-year-old truck driver. He was paroled in 1997 after serving 15 years, but still pursued his claim of innocence.

For lawyers of the Innocence Project, the pro bono organization that uses DNA technology to challenge convictions, Mr. Anderson is only half the story. The defense lawyers say the DNA test has strongly pointed to another suspect, now in state prison, who was identified at the time and came forward a year later with a confession that a judge discounted after Mr. Anderson's conviction.

"This appears to be the single worst case of police and prosecutorial tunnel vision in the 10 years we've been appealing these cases," said Peter Neufeld, co-director with Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York. "The DNA test now points to a suspect later convicted for rapes that might have been prevented if justice had prevailed in the first place."

Based on the genetic test, the commonwealth's attorney for Hanover County, Kirby H. Porter, said the rape case was being reopened.

"We're in the business of seeking justice," Mr. Porter said. "We're looking at all the individuals involved."

Mr. Anderson is the first felon to be cleared under the new law. Mr. Porter said the test results, when checked against the state DNA data base of more than 100,000 convicted felons, excluded Mr. Anderson but produced two "hits" of potential suspects. He declined to elaborate beyond noting that detectives would investigate both for possible involvement.

Normally, DNA testing is done on the basis of 8 genetic reference marks. But in this case only 4 were test-worthy because of the state of the 19-year-old rape swab, thus producing more than an individual suspect, Mr. Kirby explained.

Mr. Anderson was convicted after the rape victim told the police that her assailant bragged that she was not the first white woman he had known intimately. Hanover County detectives then focused on Mr. Anderson, an 18-year-old with no criminal record, solely because he was living with a white woman, according to Mr. Neufeld's reading of the trial record.

An all-white jury of eight women and four men reached a unanimous guilty verdict. The victim first identified Mr. Anderson from a photo lineup of standard police photographs of criminals, except for an employee identification photograph of Mr. Anderson, Mr. Neufeld said. Later, at an actual lineup, only Mr. Anderson was present among those in the original photo group, a point lawyers challenged as unfair but lost.

"There were three or four people of color in the jury pool, but the prosecutor made sure they were scratched," said Mr. Anderson, whose cause was taken up by the N.A.A.C.P. a decade ago in a clemency campaign that failed.

"I'd have to say race played a big part in this," Mr. Anderson added. "In prison there was plenty of time to think, and I would always tell myself if I hadn't moved back to Hanover County, none of this would have happened."

He met his white girlfriend in Richmond, he said, then moved with her to Hanover County, which includes Ashland. A town of 5,000 people 20 miles north of Richmond, Ashland is where the rape occurred.

"I'd describe Hanover as a good old boy county, and not a lot has changed over the years," said Mr. Anderson, who returned there after prison when an uncle offered him employment. He is married and has a young child.

Mr. Anderson is now in something of a legal limbo because under a provision of Virginia law, there is only a 21-day window after conviction, the strictest in the nation, to present new evidence of innocence to a court. A proposed constitutional amendment to make an exception for the DNA law has not yet been approved, so a judge cannot formally certify Mr. Anderson's exoneration.

As a result, Mr. Neufeld and his co-counsel, Paul F. Enzinna of the Innocence Project of the National Capital Region, plan to petition for a pardon from Gov. James S. Gilmore III, who signed the DNA law last May.

"Right now, I'm on parole until the year 2088 if they don't release me," said Mr. Anderson, who said he learned a certain patience about the law in years of being told the original rape evidence had been destroyed.

Finally, the evidence swabs were found taped in a laboratory notebook in the state archives. Then, four years into freedom, Mr. Anderson heard his long claim of innocence endorsed by science on Thursday night when he drove home to Hanover after work.

© Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company


Return to Index