May 20, 2019

Thomas Haynesworth’s name may not be familiar to you. His story is hard to digest and the outcome is unbelievable. Haynesworth served a 27-year prison sentence for crimes he did not commit. He was mistakenly identified by multiple rape victims and charged in additional crimes despite a lack of evidence.  Through intervention by the Innocence Project, Haynesworth was eventually exonerated because DNA evidence in his case matched to someone else entirely (a suspect who was arrested shortly after Haynesworth and has been convicted of multiple rape crimes).

Our criminal and justice systems have flaws that are incomprehensible when you consider the consequences. What Haynesworth’s story enlightens for us is that methods within those systems are set-up to perpetuate non-truths. Which is counter to the entire premise of how criminal justice should work.

The biggest impact to Haynesworth’s case was the fallacy of eyewitness testimony, which strongly favors fitting facts neatly around a suspect rather than finding a suspect who fits the facts. Mary Kelly Tate, clinical professor of law at the University of Richmond, outlined the following flaws when she moderated a recent discussion on wrongful convictions and reconciliation with Haynesworth, Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project’s Shawn Armbrust, and one of the victims and eyewitnesses, Janet Burke:

  • Our memory for faces is more fallible than we believe, and especially in cross-racial identification. Burke, who provided eyewitness testimony that helped convict Haynesworth, is white; Haynesworth is black.
  • In most composite drawings, for example, witnesses pick from 10 noses when we know there are actually 1000s. And then that composite drawing becomes “what they look like” and is used to identify a suspect.
  • If a witness is presented with six photos, they believe the suspect must be one of the six. When they pick the closest to what they remember, the officer often says “good job”’ which raises the witness’s confidence (and actually has nothing to do with accuracy). According to Tate, research shows that a better solution is to present photos sequentially versus in an array.
  • Further, these photos are just shoulders and above and do not show height, weight, musculature or other distinguishers. In Haynesworth’s case, there was no line-up. He was 5’6” and 125 lbs. One of the victims who was 5’8” said she had to “look up” at the rapist.

And those are just the flaws with eyewitness testimony. Haynesworth’s case was riddled with oversights and errors far beyond these.

There is tragedy here, both for Haynesworth and for Burke. Haynesworth had not been in any trouble prior to his arrest and, as a teenager, he had dreamed of becoming a police officer. When they listed the charges against him, he didn’t know what some of the terms meant. He assumed they would figure out their mistake. Burke now has grown children who knew nothing of her rape – and her trauma and error were replayed publicly. Presented with the evidence that proved her testimony was false and that Haynesworth was wrongfully convicted, Janet says she began to question everything she “knew to be true about life.”

There is light and hope here, too. It is clear that Haynesworth and Burke are now mutually respecting friends. Haynesworth remarkably states they were “both a victim of the system. She made an honest mistake.” Both speak publicly about their experience in the hopes they can change the system for the greater common good. Ultimately, theirs is a shining example of why it is never too late for the truth.