Virginia Court of Appeals Exonerates Richmond Man Who Served Nearly 27 Years for Sexual Assaults DNA and Other Evidence Prove He Didn’t Commit


This is only the Second Time a Virginia Court Has Granted a Writ of Actual Innocence Based on Non DNA Evidence


December 6, 2011


Paul Cates, 212/364-5346, cell 917/566-1294,

Shawn Armbrust, 773/ 562-9020,

Alana Salzberg, 212/364-5983,

(Richmond, VA; December 6, 2011) —  The Virginia Court of Appeals today exonerated Thomas Haynesworth of a series of sexual assaults that occurred in 1984 that DNA and other evidence now prove were committed by the self-proclaimed “Black Ninja” rapist. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Richmond Commonwealth Attorney Michael Herring and Henrico Commonwealth Attorney Wade Kizer, joined the Innocence Project, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and Hogan Lovells US LLP in seeking the writ of actual innocence for non-biological evidence that was granted by the court today. Haynesworth, who was released to parole in March thanks to intervention by Gov. Bob McDonnell, served nearly 27 years in prison for the sexual assaults and has had to register as a sex offender and abide by strict conditions of parole since his release.    

“This day was a long time coming for Mr. Haynesworth and his family,” said Shawn Armbrust, Executive Director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. “After serving nearly 27 years for crimes that he didn’t commit, Mr. Haynesworth has had to register as a sex offender and abide by degrading conditions while the Court of Appeals took nearly nine months to conclude that the Attorney General and the prosecutors were right that Mr. Haynesworth didn’t commit these crimes.” 

Peter Neufeld, Co-Director of the Innocence Project added, “This is the first time in America where the Attorney General and two local prosecutors joined us in seeking an exoneration, yet it nevertheless took nine months, two trips to the Court of Appeals, and six judges to secure relief that was obvious to everyone.”

Today’s decision, which was decided 6-4, marks only the second time that a Virginia court has exonerated someone through a writ of actual innocence for non-biological evidence since the statue passed in 2004.  Unlike this case where the decision was based on factual evidence of innocence, the first case was decided on legal reasoning.  (The court concluded that the gun in question in that case was not a gun under the law.)  


“This case is yet another tragic example of misidentification, which occurs far too often, especially in cross-racial crimes,” said Olga Akselrod, a Staff Attorney with the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law.  “Fortunately the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services has developed a new model policy for police identification procedures that would go a long way toward preventing this type of injustice, and we urge the Virginia State Crime Commission to recommend legislation that would require that police departments statewide to adopt this model policy.” 

Between January 3 and February 1, 1984, five white women were the victims of rapes or attempted rapes by a young black male in the East End of Richmond, a small area overlapping both the City of Richmond and Henrico County.  Haynesworth, an 18-year-old Richmond resident with no prior record, was arrested February 5, 1984, after one of the victims identified him.  The other four victims later picked his photo out of a photo array. Haynesworth was eventually convicted for crimes that occurred on January 3, January 30 and February 1, 1984 and sentenced to 36 years in prison.  He was acquitted of a crime that occurred on January 21, and the charges were dropped in a January 27 incident. 

Rapes in the same general area continued throughout 1984 after Haynesworth was arrested, with more than 10 young white women being attacked by a young black male who began to refer to himself to his victims as the “Black Ninja.”  On December 19, police arrested Leon Davis, who was charged with about a dozen rapes that took place during the last nine months of 1984. Davis was eventually convicted of at least three of those crimes and sentenced to multiple life terms. 

After Gov. Mark Warner ordered a review of cases between 1973 and 1988, it was discovered that the semen recovered from the victim of Haynesworth’s January 3 rape conviction matched Davis, not Haynesworth.  With this knowledge, Haynesworth’s legal team reached out to the Richmond and Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorneys to review Haynesworth’s other convictions.  While there was no physical evidence for his two remaining convictions, DNA testing proved that Davis was also the perpetrator in the case for which Haynesworth was acquitted.

The Richmond and Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorneys conducted an extensive investigation and eventually concluded that Davis, not Haynesworth, was responsible for the other two crimes.  These crimes matched the same modus operandi as the other rapes committed by Davis.  Haynesworth also passed polygraph tests about both of the cases that were administered in the presence of the respective Commonwealth’s Attorneys. 


Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli also conducted an investigation and joined in Haynesworth’s petition for a writ of actual innocence for non-biological evidence.  The case was argued before a three member panel of the Court of Appeals on March 30, 2011.  In an unusual move, the panel ruled in July that it would not issue a decision but would instead send the case to be heard before the full Court of Appeals.  The full court heard arguments on September 27, 2011 and issued its ruling today, a copy of which can be found



A timeline of the case is available here.

In addition to the lawyers listed above, the legal team includes Hogan Lovells US LLP partner Ellen Kennedy and associates Thomas Widor and Aaron George.       


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Lawanda Key July 25, 2020 at 1:34 pm Reply   

They owe home restitution to him and his family

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