In 1996, two men broke into the home of a 40-year-old Norfolk, Virginia, woman; they forced her into her bedroom, threatened to shoot her and her baby, and then raped her and beat her with a pistol. Brother-in-laws Nathaniel Epps and Percell Warren were convicted of the crime based solely on questionable testimony by an informant and a problematic identification by the victim. But the Innocence Project submitted a brief to the Virginia Supreme Court on Tuesday with the results of new DNA tests which prove that the two men weren’t responsible for the crime. The Innocence Project, which is representing Epps, is petitioning the court for his full exoneration.
Epps has always insisted on his innocence. At his trial, he testified that at the time of the crime, he was at home with his nephew and stepdaughter; both family members confirmed Epps’ alibi in their testimonies. And Warren was also accounted for, coming “in and out of the house that night,” reports the Richmond-Times Dispatch.
The prosecution had no physical evidence against Epps and Warren. In addition, neither of the men matched the victim’s initial description of the perpetrators. The victim identified Epps and Warren as the perpetrators, but only after learning that a man named Ernest Brazell had implicated the defendants. Brazell claimed to have seen Epps and Warren running from the crime scene and also to have overheard the brother-in-laws talking about committing the dreadful crime. Social science research shows that memories can be easily changed or contaminated, and that when a witness learns that another witness has identified a suspect, that information can lead to a mistaken identification.
However, results from DNA testing prove that Epps and Warren didn’t commit the crime as Brazell claimed. Testing of a hair found on the bedspread on which the victim was raped excluded Epps and Warren, as well as the victim, her daughter and her ex-boyfriend, indicating that the hair came from someone else—namely, one of the actual perpetrators.
In addition, sperm from someone other than Epps and Warren was found on the pants that the victim wore to the hospital, which was highly probative evidence because the victim had not had intercourse in almost a year. The Times-Dispatch reported that, “[t]he evidence available for testing—sperm from two males found on the victim’s jeans—was limited and required a type of DNA technology that is not as discriminating as some others. But the results prove that at least one of the two men could not have been a contributor to the sperm, says the Innocence Project.” As stated in the brief, “The commonwealth’s case was predicated on the defendants committing this crime together, and since the victim had not had intercourse in almost a year and the assailants are thus the only two possible sperm sources on the crotch of (the victim’s) pants, DNA results excluding at least one of the defendants as the source of the sperm proves that they are both actually innocent.”
The Virginia attorney general’s office now has 30 days to file a response to the brief filed by the Innocence Project on behalf of Epps. Warren, who died in prison in 2012, is being represented by the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.