Yesterday, the Virginia Supreme Court granted a Writ of Actual Innocence in the case of our client, Winston Scott, fully exonerating him of the 1975 rape for which he was wrongfully convicted. Winston is the 31st innocent person we’ve helped free or exonerate at MAIP.
The 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.
Winston was convicted in 1976 of a Fairfax County rape that occurred in July of 1975. The victim was attacked by a stranger in her Reston apartment, and Winston was arrested because a friend of his brother’s thought he resembled the composite sketch.
Although the victim had washed after the crime, she had put on a pair of jeans immediately afterward. She gave the jeans to police, and the Virginia Department of Forensic Science conducted blood-type testing on semen that had been deposited on the jeans. That testing excluded Winston. Instead of causing the police to question their theory, they asked for another round of blood-typing tests on the same evidence. Somehow, the second round placed Winston within the population of people who could have committed the crime. He ultimately was convicted based largely 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 learned from DFS that evidence in his case had been saved 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 (OAG) 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 OAG 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.”
“For 43 years, Winston Scott has been branded a rapist for a crime he didn’t commit,” said Frances Walters, MAIP’s counsel, who represented Winston with MAIP Legal Director Parisa Tafti. “Today’s decision erases that burden and will allow him to live the rest of his life without that stain.”
In addition to the incredible work done on the case by Frances and Parisa, we are grateful for the help from co-counsel at Baker Botts (Laura Smith) and Amazon (Liz Hackett), investigator Eddie Nadal, GW students (Christine Kumar, Alexandra D’Anna, Julia Rinker, Sophia Herbst, and Isabel Corngold — who is now on our staff), and AU student Nicole Greggory.
All of us at MAIP are thrilled that the Virginia Supreme Court recognized both the power of the DNA evidence and the implausibility of the Attorney General’s arguments that the DNA didn’t matter. But, as is so often true in our cases, there were red flags that should have prevented his wrongful conviction, and it also should not have taken nearly two years to correct. We hope this will cause the OAG to rethink its approach to these cases and to examine the role that tunnel vision plays in both causing wrongful convictions and making them so difficult to correct.
On behalf of Winston and all of us at MAIP, thank you for the support that allows us to do this important work!
Founded in 2000, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project corrects and prevents the conviction of innocent people in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. We are one of the most successful of the 54 innocence organizations in the country. We have helped to secure the release and/or exoneration of 31 innocent men who spent a total of 550 years in prison for crimes they did not do. We have also helped pass 13 laws that help improve the criminal justice system.