Marvin Lamont Anderson

Marvin Anderson in 2002. (Photo: Jennifer Linzer)

Marvin Anderson in 2002. (Photo: Jennifer Linzer)

Convicted because he had a white girfriend

In December 1982, an all-white jury in Hanover, Virginia, convicted Marvin Lamont Anderson, an eighteen-year-old African American, of kidnapping and raping a twenty-four-year-old white woman five months earlier. Two decades later, Anderson was exonerated by DNA testing, which showed that the crime had been convicted by a known sex offender named John Otis Lincoln.

The victim was taking a shortcut home from a shopping center early the evening of July 17, 1982, when she encountered a young black man on a bicycle. A few minutes later, she saw the man lying on his side and holding his knee. Assuming he had been hurt, she approached him. He leapt to his feet and dragged her into adjoining woods, where for the next two hours he sexually assaulted and subjected her to vulgar indignities.

After the attack, the woman staggered back to the shopping center and was taken to a hospital, where a rape kit was prepared. She gave officers a description of her attacker — medium complexion, thin mustache — and said she had scratched him. She also mentioned that he had told her she reminded him of his white girlfriend — an assertion that made Anderson a suspect. Although Anderson did not fit the description — he had a dark complexion, no mustache, and no scratches — he was the only black man in the area known to have a white girlfriend.

Police had no photo of Anderson because he had never been arrested, but his employer, a local amusement park, provided one. Police showed it, along with photos of a number of other black men, to the victim. Anderson's photo stood out in the array because it was in color and the others were black and white. From this suggestive procedure, the victim identified Anderson. Less than an hour later, she identified him again in a live lineup, and he was charged with the crime.

Almost immediately, Anderson's family and friends suspected that the crime actually had been committed by Lincoln, who not only fit the description of the attacker but also had a record for sex crimes. Witnesses reported having seen Lincoln on a bicycle riding toward the scene of the crime shortly before it occurred. A few days later, after Anderson was released on bond, Lincoln reportedly drove past the Anderson home out of curiosity about "the young boy taking his rap." Police, however, failed to investigate Lincoln.

Unbeknownst to Anderson, his lawyer, Donald White, had represented Lincoln in one of the sexual assault cases. Anderson's mother urged White to investigate Lincoln, but White did not do so. Nor did he disclose his relationship with Lincoln. In fact, he contacted Lincoln and warned him that he was a suspect in the case, prompting Lincoln to leave town temporarily.

At Anderson's trial on December 14, 1982, White relied solely on an alibi defense, comprising the testimony of three witnesses, including Anderson's white girlfriend. The only evidence against Anderson was the testimony of the victim, who assured the jury, "There is no doubt in my mind, whatsoever." A state forensic scientist, Mary Jane Burton, was called by the prosecution, but she testified that she had been unable to determine the rapist's blood type from semen recovered from the victim; forensic applications of DNA were several years in the future.

The trial lasted just five hours and in the end it came down to — as Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Ramon Chalkley told the jury — "purely a question of who you want to believe." The jury chose to believe the victim, finding Anderson guilty and recommending a sentence of 210 years — which Judge Richard H.C. Taylor imposed on the spot.

Anderson appealed, arguing principally that he had been deprived of effective assistance of counsel as a result of White's failure to disclose his relationship with Lincoln and to present evidence that Lincoln had committed the crime. After losing the appeal in 1987, Anderson returned to the trial court in pursuit of a state writ of habeas corpus. At a hearing on the petition in 1988, Lincoln was called as a witness and, amazingly, testified that he — not Anderson — had committed the crime. Soon, however, Lincoln recanted that bombshell, and Judge Taylor denied the writ.

Next Anderson sought a pardon from Governor L. Douglas Wilder, who denied it in 1993. Sophisticated DNA analysis was available by then, but when Anderson sought it he was told the evidence in his case had been routinely destroyed. Nonetheless, Anderson contacted the Innocence Project at the Cardozo School of Law in New York. Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the project, agreed to represent Anderson.

Having been "a model prisoner" for fifteen years, Anderson was released on parole in 1997. The possibility of his eventual exoneration appeared remote, but in 2001 the Virginia Division of Forensic Science notified Neufeld that the original semen sample had been found. It had been taped inside a laboratory notebook that Mary Jane Burton, who by now was deceased, had prepared nineteen years earlier. That was the good news. The bad news was that the authorities refused to permit DNA testing, which they unabashedly said would have the "potential for establishing an unwelcome precedent."

Six months later, however, a new state law went into effect authorizing forensic analysis of any previously untested evidence in cases of persons convicted of felonies. Neufeld recruited Paul Enzinna, of the Innocence Project of the National Capital Region (since renamed the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project) in Washington, D.C., to serve as co-counsel. The two moved promptly for DNA testing, which in December 2001 exonerated Anderson and implicated Lincoln, who was convicted of the crime the following year, two full decades after it occurred.

In April 2002, Governor Mark Warner granted Anderson a full pardon based on innocence. Ten months later, the Virginia General Assembly approved a compensation package for Anderson, who had returned to Hanover County after his release, married, become a father, and worked as a truck driver. The package was valued at $750,000 — $50,000 for each year Anderson spent in prison for a crime he did not commit.


— Jonah Horwitz