Habib Wahir Abdal
Habib Wahir Abdal, then known as Vincent Jenkins, was convicted of rape in 1983 and spent 16 years in prison before he was exonerated.
In May 1982, a young woman was raped in a nature preserve in Buffalo, New York. The victim described the assailant as a black man between five feet eight and five feet ten inches with a space between his upper front teeth who was wearing a hooded jacket. He had blindfolded her during the assault.
Investigation and Trial
Though Abdal did not fit the description (he was six feet two and did not have a gap in his teeth), he was picked up over four months after the assault. The victim had been informed by police that Abdal was the suspect but she failed initially to identify him as her assailant. The victim then viewed a photo of Abdal that was four years old and eventually identified him as the perpetrator during a “show-up” procedure.
A forensic analyst testified at Abdal’s trial that he compared hairs from the crime scene with Abdal’s hairs and found them to be distinctively different. He said he couldn’t exclude Abdal as a possible perpetrator, however, because “it’s not unusual to have different hairs come from the same person.” He went on to give statistics on the number of hairs necessary in order to determine a match and the likelihood of finding different hairs from the same person. Since there is not adequate empirical data on the frequency of various class characteristics in human hair, it was invalid for the analyst to give statistics on the number of hairs needed to determine a match.
Based on the victim’s identification of Abdal and the hair evidence that allegedly failed to exclude him, the jury convicted him and he was sentenced to twenty years.
Abdal’s attorney, Eleanor Jackson Piel, continued to work on his case and eventually contacted the Innocence Project. After numerous efforts, the defense successfully secured physical evidence for DNA testing in 1993, but the tests were deemed inconclusive.
Years later, as DNA testing became more sophisticated and discerning, Abdal’s evidence was again submitted for testing. This time, the results revealed that there were two contributors of spermatozoa, in keeping with the victim’s claim of prior consensual sex with her husband. Neither of the profiles belonged to Abdal.
Though the results exculpated Abdal, prosecutors fought his exoneration, claiming there may have been more rapists or that Abdal participated in the rape without ejaculating. These theories contradicted the victim’s statements to police that there was a singular rapist who ejaculated inside of her, as well as the prosecution’s own theory of the crime at trial.
After spending 16 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Abdal was finally exonerated and released in September 1999. In January 2002, a Court of Claims action brought by Abdal was settled for $2 million. Sadly, he passed away in 2005, just six years after his exoneration, at the age of sixty-six.
State: New York
Sentence: 20 years to life
Incident Date: 05/18/1982
Conviction Date: 06/06/1983
Exoneration Date: 09/01/1999
Accused Pleaded Guilty: No
Contributing Causes of Conviction: Eyewitness Misidentification, Government Misconduct, Unvalidated or Improper Forensic Science
Death Penalty Case: No
Race of Defendant: African American
Race of Victim: Caucasian
Status: Exonerated by DNA
Type of Crime: Sex Crimes
Forensic Science at Issue: Hair Analysis