Wrongfully imprisoned Richmond man seeks exoneration

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) – The Richmond man who authorities say spent 27 years wrongfully imprisoned for rape is trying to clear his name. Tuesday, Thomas Haynesworth took what could be the final step toward freedom.

There goes Thomas Haynesworth, walking all by himself on a downtown Richmond sidewalk. It must feel so bizarre, because for 27 years he couldn't walk anywhere without handcuffs or prison guards nearby.

In 1984, as a teenager, Haynesworth was convicted of multiple rapes only to be pardoned and released in March when new DNA evidence implicated somebody else. Since then, Haynesworth has been out of prison, but he hasn't been free.

"I'm an innocent man. I just want to be exonerated and move on with my life," Haynesworth said Tuesday.

Only the Virginia Court of Appeals has the power to exonerate, so today, ten judges heard from two different sides both arguing, unusually, for the same outcome.

The whole thing happens very quickly. Each side gets only 15 minutes to make arguments. The hearing is complete in about a half hour. All of it happening in front of a man who spent nearly 30 years of his own life in prison.

"I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, you know? Falsely accused of something," Haynesworth said.

Normally, the attorney general would work to uphold convictions. But in this extraordinary case, Ken Cuccinelli said the original victims made an honest mistake in identifying the wrong man so many years ago.

"Wrong place, wrong time, looked too much like him. Same blood type, which didn't help," Cuccinelli said.

Haynesworth remains on parole as a registered sex offender, even though local prosecutors, the attorney general, and the governor agree that should be erased from his record.

If Haynesworth had any predictions on the court's action, they were kept to himself, just like his walk.

The court can choose to do three things: Exonerate Haynesworth, not exonerate him, or send the case to a lower court for more review. It's unclear when a decision will be made, but attorneys believe it will take months.

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