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Opinion: Exoneration erases only part of accused's debt

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Opinion: Exoneration erases only part of accused's debt
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

The state of Virginia gave Thomas Haynesworth one heck of a birthday gift last week. After 27 years in prison, the commonwealth set him free. On his 46th birthday. How sweet.


The problem is, that's only the beginning of what the government owes this man, even though Haynesworth may not see that yet.

"This is the best birthday. Nothing can compare to this," Haynesworth said to reporters as he left the Greensville Correctional Center.

Of course you're thrilled the day you walk out of that place, say others who have made the same walk to freedom that Haynesworth did.

"You're so happy, you can't imagine being mad at anyone that day you get out," said Victor Burnette, who remembers the sheer joy of the day he finished an 8 1/2-year prison sentence for a crime he didn't commit.

"The thing is, when you first get back out, you think it's all over with," Burnette said in his soft Richmond drawl.

"But it's not."

For nearly three decades, Haynesworth had been telling everyone he was innocent, that he didn't commit the rapes he was convicted of in 1984. And at last, after DNA testing cleared him of one of the charges, the state's highest officials are finally agreeing with him.

But it's not just those 27 years that were taken. In a way, the prison sentence continues.

Once freed, these exonerated men get turned down for jobs. Their friends have moved on, and so has the rest of the world. Everything feels alien: ATMs, cellphones, the very concept of a Super Walmart.

All these wonders await Haynesworth, the other men said.

"And just because a person is out, if you're on parole, you're still living with all the rules and regulations following you for something you didn't do," said Marvin Lamont Anderson, who served 15 years for a rape that someone else in his neighborhood committed.

"I did 15 plus five," said Anderson, who was treated like a felon until DNA testing cleared him.

Anderson was working with the fire department when he was arrested in 1982. For years after he was released, he couldn't rejoin his fellow firefighters because of that bogus conviction.

He was a trucker who had a hard time taking jobs because his parole conditions didn't allow him to travel out of state. And he wasn't allowed to be around children -- even his own family -- because of the conviction.

After the Innocence Project championed Anderson's case and used DNA evidence to not only exonerate Anderson but also to convict the correct man -- a man whose confession in 1988 was ignored -- Anderson had his record cleared. He received $1.2 million in compensation and became a rare success story. He has three children and his own trucking company and recently was appointed a district fire chief in Hanover County.

Burnette spent fewer years locked up, but he spent 20 years on the outside before someone took up his case and helped clear him.

He couldn't return to his job as a welder, the woman he was dating married someone else and had two kids. He kept insisting that he was innocent, riding his bike down to the crime lab daily, begging people to find the old DNA samples from his case to prove it.

After he was finally cleared, the state offered him $226,000 in compensation. For months, Burnette refused to cash the first payment of $45,000 to protest all of the conditions that came with the money. The payments were to come for the next 25 years in $600 increments.

"I'm almost 60," Burnette said. He finally cashed that first check. He needed the money, and he treated himself to a ping-pong table and a grill.

He is more satisfied with the simple things that come from having a felony expunged. "I got to vote for the first time in 30 years," he said. "And I got a jury summons."

He was probably the only man in Virginia happy to get one of those. Virginia is one of 27 states that offer financial compensation to the exonerated. The ones I talked to didn't really want more money.

Burnette, who makes little money as a housepainter, is working on a bill to get exonerated individuals the same health insurance as state employees.

"I lost my hearing in prison," he said. "Right now, if I were still in prison, or if I got sent back, I'd have better health care than I have now. I think that would be a fair thing to do for us."

Anderson wants change on the investigative side of things. He wants police to rely far less on eyewitness accounts and to get better at "not doing tunnel vision" when it comes to suspects.

These are changes that can be incremental, but are reasonable, given what's at stake.