By Alexis Isadora, JD correspondent
Justice:Denied magazine, Issue 26, page 4
“I am free!” declared Arthur Whitfield on August 23, 2004, as he walked out of Virginia’s Lawrenceville Correctional Facility after 22 years of imprisonment for a crime he did not commit.
In 1982, Arthur Whitfield was charged with rape, sodomy and robbery after being identified by two victims as their assailant.
In August 1981, two women in Ghent, Virginia were raped in separate incidences, but under similar circumstances. The perpetrator attacked the first victim at night, as she was exiting her car. With the threat of a knife, he robbed her, demanded she undress and then raped her. After reporting the rape, the police asked the victim to scan photographs of possible assailants; she picked out seven photographs. One was Whitfields’. She later identified him in a line up, explaining that she was able to recognize him from the attack because the light from a nearby house had illuminated his face.
The second rape also involved a perpetrator with a knife that attacked a woman as she exited her car. She also identified Whitfield as the rapist.
After the trial for the first rape, the jury returned a verdict of guilty and sentenced him to 45 years in prison, despite evidence supporting Whitfield’s innocence. The jury disregarded testimony by the family asserting that he was at a birthday party at a neighbor’s house the night of the attacks They also ignored the two victims’ description of their rapist as clean-shaven, while Whitfield was bearded.
Whitfield pled guilty to the second rape in return for a lighter sentence. He was afraid the next jury would also make an erroneous decision and return with another lengthy sentence. His plea gave him 18 years for the second rape, to be run consecutively, totaling 63 years behind bars.
While always asserting his innocence, Whitfield wrote to the judge following the sentencing and explained that there must have been a mistake. The judge did not respond.
His expected release date was 2015, and in 1991 he was up for parole, but it was denied.
During his stay in prison, Whitfield earned his GED and learned vocational skills such as brick masonry and commercial cleaning. He thought if he kept busy it would distract him from the atrocity that had occurred.
A Virginia state statute, introduced in 2001, permitted inmates to present DNA to exonerate themselves of wrongful convictions. Whitfield filed a pro-se, but was told that the state had lost all of the evidence pertaining to his case. However, serologist Jane Burton had defied state protocol and saved samples of evidence from all the cases she had worked on, one of who’s was Whitfield’s.
Whitfield’s DNA was submitted and found inconsistent with the DNA of the rapist. Following the DNA test, Commonwealth attorney John R. Doyle III petitioned the parole board for Whitfield’s exoneration, which was conceded to. In August of 2004, at the age of 49, Arthur Whitfield was finally exonerated of rape the charges and freed.
Burton’s samples had provided that exonerated Marvin Anderson in 2001, Julius Ruffin and at least two others since, and as it turns out, Ruffin and Whitfield share the same arresting officer. Ruffin’s attorney, Gordon Zedd, plans to petition the state for the release of all of Burton’s evidence under the Freedom of Information Act, in hopes to exonerate others.
Although it has become legal for wrongly convicted incarcerants to sue the state for financial compensation, Whitfield has not done so thus far. He said, “I'm not thinking about that now, I'm just happy to be free."
Neither the victims nor the lawyers have commented on Whitfield’s release, “It would be nice for them to say they made a mistake. It takes a big person to say they made a mistake,” explained Whitfield. However an apology will not replace the 22 years that have been stolen from his life.
His prolonged incarceration caused his relationships with people on the outside to deteriorate. The girlfriend he had 22 years ago has long since moved on. Upon reuniting with his 70 year old mother and the rest of his family, he commented, “My family became strangers to me, in a way.” Despite their elation that they had him back, Whitfield still felt distanced from them, even uncomfortable to ask for a special dish at a family meal.
Now Whitfield plans to spend as much time as possible with his family, and try to re-acclimate to an environment that has changed so much in the two decades he lived secluded from the world.
However Whitfield is approaching his reentery into the outside world with a positive ‘don’t look back’ attitude, “I can't forget, but I can forgive. It's over with now, I just can't keep focusing on that. I've got to try to move ahead now and make a life for myself”
Wrongful imprisonment takes away years and family, Michelle Washington, The Virginian-Pilot, August 25, 2004.
Man Wrongly Convicted of Rape Freed After 22 Years in Virginia Prison, AP Story, Tampa Bay Tribune, August 24, 2004.