In recognition of Black History Month in February, the Innocence Blog will feature a nearly month-long series that will examine the intersection of the nation’s evolving criminal justice system, especially around wrongful convictions, and the lives of black people in 21st Century America. The series will feature personal and professional stories and perspectives by legal and law enforcement experts, as well as people at the forefront of changing post-conviction laws for the wrongfully convicted in the United States. Please visit the Innocence Blog this month to read guest posts from all the contributing authors.
Marvin Anderson, an Innocence Project client and board member, was exonerated in 2002 of a wrongful conviction that included two counts of rape, forcible sodomy, abduction, and robbery. He served 15 years in prison and four years on parole in Virginia before he was exonerated based on post-conviction DNA testing. As a part of its Black History Month blog series, the Innocence Blog is highlighting Anderson’s case today.
Marvin Anderson’s case, like all wrongful conviction cases, reveals how the criminal justice system can fail innocent people. In particular, his story demonstrates how racism and bias can misinform criminal investigations and result in innocent people being punished for crimes that they did not commit.
In the summer of 1982, Marvin was an 18-year-old man who was living just outside of Richmond, Virginia, with his mother and sister. He was getting ready to become a high school senior, and was a varsity member of his school’s basketball team. He was training to be a firefighter, his life-long passion ever since he was a 10-year-old kid who had begun volunteering at his local station, shining the metal hubcaps and bumpers of the fire trucks.
In July of that summer, police went to Marvin’s house and informed him that he was needed at the local station; he had to appear in a lineup. A young white woman had been brutally attacked by a black man who had approached her on a bicycle. The assailant beat her repeatedly, threatened her with a gun, raped her, and sodomized her. During the attack, the perpetrator had told the victim that she was nothing special; he’d been with a white girl before.
Nearly as soon as the victim reported the crime, Marvin, who is black, became a suspect. It wasn’t that Marvin had a criminal background. In fact, he had no record whatsoever. Marvin was singled out by a local police officer because he was the only black man in the community that the officer knew who had a white girlfriend. Hence, Marvin fit the description of the perpetrator.
Because Marvin had no criminal record, the police did not have a mug shot to show the victim. To obtain a photo, the officer who targeted Marvin went to the teen’s employer and got a color photo employment ID. The victim was shown the color ID card of Marvin alongside six black-and-white mug shots of other suspects. The victim identified Marvin as her assailant (although later investigation into the case would eventually reveal that the actual perpetrator was in the photo array). Within an hour of the photo spread, she was asked to identify her assailant from a live lineup. Marvin was the only person in the lineup whose picture was in the original photo array. Again, she picked Marvin.
Marvin told the police that he was innocent. His mother and his girlfriend told them that he was innocent. Even his neighbors said that he was innocent. They saw him washing his car in his mother’s driveway at the time of the crime.
To help his case, Marvin’s mom hired an investigator who found a witness who identified John Otis Lincoln—another young black man who lived in Marvin’s neighborhood—as having road the bike that was described by the victim on the day of the crime. The witness—the actual owner of the bike—said that Lincoln had stolen it from him approximately one half hour before the rape.
At trial, Marvin’s case was put before an all-white jury. Marvin requested that his attorney call both the owner of the bicycle and Lincoln as witnesses; his counsel, who incredibly was representing the person who turned out to be the real perpetrator, declined. Marvin was convicted on all counts. Despite his not having a criminal record, he was sentenced to more than 200 years in prison. Recounting the day he was sentenced, Marvin said, “I could hear the judge’s words and understand what he was saying, but I couldn’t see him. And my family was sitting right behind me, and when I turned around I couldn’t see them.”
In 1988, John Otis Lincoln came forward and admitted his involvement in the crime in an effort to clear Marvin’s name. At a state habeas hearing in August 1988, Lincoln confessed and offered details of the crime under oath, in open court. Nevertheless, the same judge that presided over the original trial declared Lincoln a liar and refused to vacate the conviction. A coalition of civil rights groups, including the NAACP, as well as church leaders, and members of the state legislature petitioned Governor Wilder for clemency in 1993, which was denied.
It was not until August 2002 that Marvin was finally fully exonerated after DNA testing excluded Anderson as the perpetrator. Because the evidence was heavily degraded, the profile obtained was limited to four markers. When the profile was run against Virginia’s convicted offender DNA database, it matched two inmates. Although the identity of these two men has not been officially revealed, it appears that one of the inmates is John Otis Lincoln.
Today, Marvin is doing what he’d always wanted; he is Chief of the Fire Department and EMS for Hanover, Virginia, but because of his wrongful conviction, it took more than 28 years for him to get there.