Exoneration of the day - Man wrongly convicted of sexual assault

Posted By Imhoff & Associates || 23-Sep-2016

A man broke into the home of an 82-year-old woman in West Virginia. The man physically assaulted her and sexually assaulted the woman’s 60-year-old daughter. Both women described the attacker as a black man with a light complexion.

A couple months later another woman was sexually assaulted in her home in a nearby area. She also said her attacker was a black man and police believed the attacks were committed by the same person.

The two different crimes lead to interviews with over 100 possible suspects, including black baseball players for the Charleston Wheelers, whose stadium was located nearby. One of the players interviewed was a 20-year-old man who was a pitcher for the Wheelers and a likely candidate for professional baseball. He was fingerprinted and then released.

In 1989, the pitcher was arrested in Florida and was found in possession of a gun. A check of his fingerprints linked him to a fingerprint found on a vase in the homes of one of the previous sexual assault crimes so he was brought back to the county.

The chief blood analyst for the state of West Virginia, analyzed biological evidence from both sexual assaults and determined that the pitcher could not be excluded as the rapist in either attack.

The pitcher later went to trial and the women didn’t identify him as the attacker. They instead reaffirmed that the attacker was a black man with a light complexion; where as the pitcher was black, but with a very dark complexion. One of the women identified another person as her attacker from a photographic lineup.

A West Virginia State Police lieutenant testified that the pitcher’s fingerprint matched a fingerprint impression found on a vase in victim’s home.

The blood analyst testified that seminal fluid and sperm in the rape kit could not excluded the pitcher as the source of the seminal fluid—even though his laboratory analysis had definitively excluded the pitcher. The lab reports, which were not disclosed to the defense, identified the seminal fluid and semen as coming from a person with Type O blood and the pitcher had Type A blood. The blood analyst swore that the pitcher was among the 0.18 percent of the male population that could have left the semen recovered from the victim.

The jury acquitted the pitcher of the rape of one of the victims, but convicted him of the rape of the other victim and physical assault on yet another victim, as well as robbery for taking $90 and a cassette player from their house. He was sentenced to 33 to 110 years in prison.

Several years later the Supreme Court of Appeals was shown a pattern of misconduct by the blood analyst. In the years following the pitcher’s trial, the blood analyst was investigated and found to have a long history of falsifying evidence in criminal prosecutions.

Ultimately, the court concluded that the blood analyst’s “pattern and practice of misconduct completely undermined the validity and reliability of any forensic work he performed or reported.” The judge further said that “as a matter of law, any testimonial or documentary evidence offered by [the blood analyst] at any time in any criminal prosecution should be deemed invalid, unreliable, and inadmissible in determining whether to award a new trial in any subsequent habeas corpus proceeding.”

Years later the blood analyst had moved on to similar work in Texas, calling into question many cases in that state as well. He was fired and later indicted for fraud. He died before going to trial.

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals set forth the standards of review for resolving claims based on the blood analyst’s fraudulent testimony. The pitcher sought to vacate his convictions by filing a state law petition for a writ of habeas corpus and pursuing it “diligently and persistently,” but he was unsuccessful for decades.

Finally, in July 2012, Gardner filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. In March 2016, U.S. District Judge Joseph Goodwin found that the West Virginia state courts had “inexplicably allowed his (state) habeas petition to languish for over two decades.” He issued the writ, vacated Gardner’s convictions and ordered that Garner be given a new trial.

“The Circuit Court of Kanawha County has avoided a final ruling on the merits, despite being ordered to conduct a full evidentiary hearing multiple times” by the appeals court, Judge Goodwin declared. “Gardner has been in legal purgatory.”

Judge Goodwin said he had “absolutely no doubt that Zain’s false testimony” resulted in “a complete miscarriage of justice.”

Gardner was released on bond on April 1, 2016. On September 7, 2016, the prosecution dismissed the charges.


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