By Alix Hines
Capital News Service
When Marvin Anderson was 10 years old, he moved in with his aunt, who lived next to a fire station in Hanover County. It wasn’t long before fire and rescue became his dream, but his dreams were shattered eight years later.
“In 1982, that goal came crashing down on me all because one person said, ‘He did it.’ That’s all it took,” Anderson said at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Black History Month lecture Tuesday night.
Because of false information, Anderson was convicted of rape and other crimes that he did not commit. He ended up spending 15 years in prison, until he was freed thanks to the Innocence Project, an organization that uses DNA evidence to exonerate inmates who’ve been wrongfully imprisoned.
Now Anderson and Peter Neufeld, the co-director of the Innocence Project, are working together to ensure that such injustice doesn’t happen to anyone else.
Virginia law contains what many see as an obstacle to correcting wrongful convictions. It’s called the “21-day rule”: Twenty-one days after a conviction, the decision is final, regardless of any evidence that may emerge.
“In other words, if you were convicted of murder and on the 22nd day, the deceased came walking into town – OK, no murder. You couldn’t go back into a court to get exonerated. Your only remedy would be to go to the governor and seek a pardon,” Neufeld said.
In Anderson’s case, swabs from the victim’s rape kit provided DNA evidence that was unavailable at the time of the trial.
In this year’s session of the Virginia General Assembly, the 21-day rule is once again up for discussion.
Delegate Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, introduced House Bill 1355, which would allow any felon to petition for a writ of actual innocence.
Under HB 1355, after being convicted, a defendant still could present to the court new evidence, both DNA and non-biological, to establish a “reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the petitioner.” The bill failed in the House Courts of Justice Committee.
Sen. Kenneth Alexander, D-Norfolk, introduced a similar measure, Senate Bill 823. He later withdrew the proposal.
Delegate David Albo, R-Springfield, had better luck with his bill, HB 1432, which would allow a felon to petition for a writ of actual innocence only in certain cases. The House passed the bill Tuesday and sent it to the Senate for consideration.
Such a law might have helped Anderson during his ordeal.
Anderson, who is African-American, told the VCU audience he believes police singled him out in part because he had a white girlfriend.
After officers questioned him, he was included in a photo lineup, where the victim was asked to point out the photo of the man who attacked her. Because Anderson had no prior criminal record, the officers pulled a color photo of him from his employer.
The other photos the victim was shown were in black and white, and she immediately picked out Anderson’s photo. Anderson was the only man from the first set of photos who was also included in the in-person lineup, where the victim once again pointed to him as her attacker.
The jury sentenced Anderson to 222 years in prison. At that moment, Anderson said, he went numb and felt like he was falling into a black hole.
“At 18 years old, your life is just beginning. We sometimes forget where we come from. A lot of us know where we want to go, but where we come from and where we’re going – there’s a lot of space in between,” Anderson said.
After his conviction, Anderson spent 15 years in prison, even after another man, John Otis Lincoln, came forward and confessed to the crime. The judge didn’t believe Lincoln and refused to reverse Anderson’s conviction.
When DNA testing became available, Anderson petitioned the court to review the DNA evidence from his case. But he was told that all of the evidence had been destroyed. In 1994, his case was accepted by the Innocence Project, and by 1997, he was on parole.
In 2001, Neufeld contacted Dr. Paul Farrar, the director of the Virginia Division of Forensic Science. Farrar found DNA evidence from Anderson’s case in an old lab notebook of someone who worked with rape kit evidence in the lab.
The DNA evidence proved Anderson’s innocence and proved that Lincoln was in fact guilty of the crime he confessed to in 1988.
Anderson was excluded as the perpetrator in 2001 and fully pardoned in 2002.
Today, Anderson said he is fulfilling the dream he had before his 15 years in prison.
“One of my goals was to become a professional firefighter,” he said. That goal was postponed when Anderson was wrongfully convicted. But he told the VCU audience that he never gave up:
“I am proud to say that as I stand here, that same fire station that I grew an interest in at 10 years old – I am now the district chief of that fire station.”