For Marvin Anderson, the summer before his senior year of high school started off as a busy, exciting time. It was 1982 and he was in training to become a fireman at the Hanover, Virginia, Fire Department where he had been volunteering since he was ten years old, cleaning fire trucks and learning how to fight fires. “It was a neighborhood hangout spot for the guys in the community; we played basketball, had water fights…”
Then on July 17, a young woman was brutally raped. Anderson became a suspect based on the fact that the black perpetrator told the white victim that he “had a white girl,” and Anderson, who is black, was the only person known to local law enforcement to have a white girlfriend. Based solely on the victim’s misidentification, he was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 210 years in prison by an all-white jury. He was 18 years old. “An 18 year-old kid doesn’t know a whole lot about the law,” Anderson says, “especially being tried for a crime of that nature.”
When the judge read the jury’s verdict, Anderson says, everything went to darkness. “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 1997, Anderson was paroled, but his name had not yet been cleared. During his 15 years of wrongful imprisonment, he and his family never stopped fighting to prove his innocence. By the time he was released, he had become an Innocence Project client. In 2002, Anderson was finally exonerated through DNA testing.
He decided to stay in Hanover, near his family, the courthouse where he was wrongfully convicted, and the fire station where he used to volunteer. As a parolee, Anderson couldn’t work at the fire department because he still had a felony on his record. But after his exoneration, the battalion chief encouraged him to get involved again. So, in addition to owning a trucking company and raising three children, Anderson enrolled in the fire academy. He recently completed his training and has already been promoted to Fire Lieutenant.
“To actually see what forms the fire can take and what it can do to a building…it’s bad when it does happen, but the challenge and test of extinguishing the fire is what motivates me.” After 28 years of waiting, Anderson is more than up to the challenge.
About one-third of all people exonerated through DNA testing were arrested or convicted between the ages of 14 and 22.
Learn more about how wrongful convictions affect youth here