The Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed what Winston Scott has been saying for 43 years and what DNA evidence now proves: that he is innocent of the 1975 Fairfax County rape for which he was convicted.
On July 24, 1975, a Reston woman was raped by a stranger in her apartment. Police collected her jeans, which had semen from the perpetrator on them, for testing that could determine the perpetrator’s blood type. In addition, the victim worked with police to put together a composite sketch of her attacker.
Winston, then 19 years old, became a suspect when a friend of his brother’s saw the composite and believed it looked like Winston. The victim identified him, but initial serology tests performed by the Virginia Department of Forensic Science (DFS) concluded that the perpetrator and Winston had different blood types. Subsequent retesting of the same item placed Winston within the category of people who could have committed the crime. He was convicted in 1976 based almost entirely on the victim’s identification and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Although Winston was released on parole in 1981, the rape conviction continued to haunt him. In December 2016, he received word from DFS that evidence in his case had been saved at the lab and that DNA testing was being conducted on the evidence as part of a project that performed DNA testing in hundreds of old cases. The letter invited him to submit a DNA sample so his DNA could be compared to the DNA in the case file.
Winston immediately contacted the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project (MAIP), which has been representing him since then. The DNA testing proved his innocence and excluded the victim’s ex-boyfriend from the time of the crime. Based on those results, in 2017, MAIP filed a Writ of Actual Innocence in the Virginia Supreme Court.
The Office of the Attorney General ultimately opposed the request. It suggested that there was no evidence the jeans belonged to the victim, even though the jeans were collected and tested by the Commonwealth and even though the Commonwealth sought to admit the second set of blood-testing results at trial. The AG also argued that the semen could have been deposited on the jeans in the laundry, which is scientifically improbable, and that nationally recognized DNA expert Dr. Norah Rudin’s analysis of DFS DNA tests could not be considered because it did not come from DFS.
The Court rejected those arguments and found that the DNA results were “clear and convincing evidence that no rational trier of fact would have found proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
This decision marks only the second time the Virginia Supreme Court has granted a Writ of Actual Innocence opposed by the Office of the Attorney General and the second time it has granted a Writ because of a 2013 change in the law championed by MAIP and then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. In February, the Court reversed a Virginia Court of Appeals decision and granted an evidentiary hearing to MAIP client Nathaniel Dennis, over the opposition of the Office of the Attorney General.