This Article is From Jan 07, 2018

A Virginia Man Pleaded Guilty To Rape 40 Years Ago. Now He Says He Is Innocent

Watford contended he was innocent, but his grandfather urged him not to take the risk of going to trial. He was looking at the possibility of life in prison if convicted by a jury, while a prosecutor was offering a deal that would allow him to walk out of the courthouse without serving a day.

A Virginia Man Pleaded Guilty To Rape 40 Years Ago. Now He Says He Is Innocent

Watford is now petitioning the Virginia Supreme Court to overturn his conviction. (Representational)

Roy Watford was 18 and borderline intellectually disabled, when a Virginia judge asked him to make a decision that would go a long way to determine his future: How would he plead to the charge of raping a 12-year-old girl?

Watford contended he was innocent, but his grandfather urged him not to take the risk of going to trial. He was looking at the possibility of life in prison if convicted by a jury, while a prosecutor was offering a deal that would allow him to walk out of the courthouse without serving a day.

So Watford rose on March 23, 1978, with a heavy sense of shame and uttered the word that would dog him over the next four decades: guilty.

Watford, 58, of Chesapeake, Virginia, is now petitioning the Virginia Supreme Court to overturn his conviction, saying he erred in his plea and new evidence - including DNA tests - show he could not have committed the crime. The state opposes the motion, saying Watford has not met the high bar of proof to be cleared.

The court will hear oral arguments Wednesday before returning a decision.

Few think they would plead guilty to a crime they didn't commit, but a recent spate of cases like Watford's is bringing increased attention to the issue of defendants who claim they are innocent despite their guilty pleas. Innocence advocates say such cases raise questions about the plea bargain system, which has grown to resolve about 95 percent of felony criminal cases in the United States.

U.S. District Court judge for the Southern District of New York, Jed Rakoff, said mandatory minimums and other factors that increased the length of sentences during the rise in crime between the late 1960s and mid-1990s have given prosecutors extraordinary leverage over defendants - even innocent ones.

"The penalty for going to trial is so high if you lose that, many people cannot take it," Rakoff said.

The National Registry of Exonerations database shows nearly 400 of the nation's roughly 2,140 known exonerees pleaded guilty to their crimes before being cleared, or about 18 percent of the total. The Innocence Project and others launched a campaign to highlight the issue earlier in 2017.

"People plead guilty to crimes they didn't commit all the time. I didn't realize the gravity of the situation," Watford said. "I was raised by my grandmother and grandfather and was never told anything wrong by them, so I listened to them."

Watford, who received a sentence of 10 years probation, said the rape conviction has left him unable to find steady work. He has bounced from job to job over the years, barely earning more than minimum wage.

Faded memories, missing evidence and the death of the detective involved have made re-examining his case challenging, but the basic outline is not in dispute.

Watford's trouble began on Sept. 14, 1977.

At a recent evidentiary hearing held to help the court make a decision about Watford's innocence claim, the rape victim testified that she got on her bike in Portsmouth, Virginia, and set out to find Watford, a teen she knew from the neighborhood. The Post generally does not name victims of sexual assault.

The victim testified she knocked on a door of a home that a neighbor said was vacant and used for trysts and partying.

When the door opened, the victim told the court she saw Watford's 15-year-old brother inside before someone threw a blanket over her head. She said her view remained blocked by the quilt during the attack that followed.

At the time of the incident, the victim told a detective she was taken inside the home, and raped and sodomized by three black males on a bare mattress, according to court records. The victim later identified the three Watford brothers as her attackers, according to court records.

But at the recent evidentiary hearing, the woman said the only person she could definitively say was in the house was the 15-year-old brother. The victim said she did not see Roy Watford that day and could not say whether she heard his voice during the assault. She did not remember whether she specifically identified Roy Watford to police as one of her attackers.

Joseph Edward Brown, a neighbor, testified at the evidentiary hearing that he and a friend happened to be passing by the vacant home around the time of the rape.

"We heard a girl screaming on the way home, so we went into the vacant house, saw the girl standing up screaming to the right," Brown testified. "Some guys were on the left. We took the girl out of the house."

After the attack, the victim went home and told her mother what happened, she testified at the evidentiary hearing. The victim's mother took her to the Naval Regional Medical Center, where she was examined and police were called.

Sperm was collected from a vaginal swab of the victim, the girl's jeans and the mattress, according to court records. DNA matching was not yet developed, so the material was not tested at the time.

Hairs were also taken from the scene of the crime that were eventually matched to Roy Watford and his other, 16-year-old brother. In the years since, hair matching has been discredited as a form of forensic science.

The Watford brothers were subsequently charged with rape and sodomy. Roy Watford had no previous criminal record and told The Washington Post he was hanging out with friends at a store in Portsmouth at the time of the rape. The Post does not generally name juveniles charged with crimes, so is it not naming Watford's brothers.

The 15-year-old brother was found "not innocent" in juvenile court and the charges against the 16-year-old were eventually dropped. The case against Roy Watford continued.

At his arraignment in March 1978, Roy Watford was offered the plea deal that included dropping the sodomy charge. The prosecutor, Gregory Pomije, had only a faint memory of the case but confirmed it was unusual to offer a deal of no jail time on a rape charge, according to court records.

Jon Sheldon, Roy Watford's attorney, said he felt the light punishment reflected the weakness of the case against Roy Watford.

After the conviction, Roy Watford returned to his life, continuing high school and working a job. He completed probation and has not had another charge since, but he said the conviction narrowed his horizons.

In 2005, then-Virginia Gov. Mark Warner ordered fresh DNA tests in thousands of criminal cases from 1973 to 1988 including Watford's, after a trove of biological samples was discovered in the case files of a deceased former analyst from the state's department of forensic science.

The sweeping review came after DNA evidence led to a handful of high-profile exonerations in the state that shook confidence in the justice system.

The DNA testing in Watford's case excluded all three brothers as contributing any of the biological material that was collected from the scene of the crime and the victim. The tests did not provide any positive matches.

Detectives visited the victim in 2010 and 2016 following the results of the DNA tests, but she did not provide any other details about the case and said she wanted to put it behind her, according to court records. The woman did not respond to requests for comment.

In August 2016, Roy Watford filed his petition for a writ of actual innocence with the Virginia Supreme Court.

The Virginia Office of the Attorney General opposed the motion, writing there was not enough evidence in the record to grant it since there wasn't a trial and the DNA evidence alone was not strong enough to prove Roy Watford's innocence.

The state argued the only DNA that could be definitively linked to the rape was that recovered from the victim's vagina, not what was found on her pants or the bed since they may have been deposited at other times.

Since there were multiple assailants, the OAG reasoned Roy Watford could have participated in the attack, but one of the other attackers could have deposited the sperm found in the victim. The OAG declined to comment.

"He has not shown by clear and convincing evidence that a rational trier of fact would have disbelieved [the victim]," the OAG wrote in response to Watford's petition.

Earlier in 2017, the Virginia Supreme Court ordered the April evidentiary hearing to ascertain facts that weren't in the record.

Watford said he is cautiously optimistic the court will side with him.

(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)