Members from the University of Richmond and city of Richmond communities gathered on Wednesday night to listen to a discussion between a woman who was sexually assaulted and the man she mistakenly identified as her attacker, which created a conversation that called for more change within the criminal justice system. 

The conversation, which was moderated by Mary Kelly Tate, director of the T. C. Williams School of Law’s Institute for Actual Innocence and clinical professor of law, featured Thomas Haynesworth, Janet Burke and Shawn Armbrust. 

In January 1984, Burke was sexually assaulted at a daycare center in Richmond’s East End. One month later, following a string of similar attacks against four other women, all five had identified Haynesworth as their attacker using photo identification and a blood type match. Haynesworth was convicted of two of the rapes and one attempted robbery and abduction, and remained in prison until 2011. 

Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, represented Haynesworth during his quest for exoneration. 

Tate began the conversation by asking Burke and Haynesworth what was happening in their lives when this story first began. 

Haynesworth, who had never been in trouble with the law before, had dreams of being a police officer, he said. But after one of the survivors had identified him as her attacker, all of this changed. 

Haynesworth suddenly found himself in prison, having to ask his mother to define the crimes he was accused of, such as sodomy and abduction.

“I didn’t know,” Haynesworth said. “She told me, and I said, ‘I wouldn’t do nothing like that.’” 

While in prison, Haynesworth relied on his mother, sisters and grandmother for support, he said. They encouraged him to pray and study the Bible, and Haynesworth also committed himself to reading about similar cases to his in the prison's law library, as well as completing his GED. 

Meanwhile, Burke was struggling to cope with the lasting trauma of an assault that occurred when she was a young woman. 

“They had attacked me, they broke into not only my place of employment but a church and carried out the most hideous thing that could’ve happened,” she said. “There were times that I wished that I had died. It would’ve been easier. But you just held on to the thought that justice would come to light, and that the person who had attacked me would be found, would be prosecuted.

“I spent 27 years processing the trauma, having the support of my family, knowing what I did was the right thing to do, to getting a phone call from my mother stating that there were two Richmond detectives that needed to speak with me.”

Wrongful convictions are damaging to both the incarcerated and the victim. The victim does not have the intention to participate in a process that would incarcerate an innocent person, Tate said in an interview prior to the panel. 

After going through the trauma of a violent offense, and then the trial and post-conviction proceedings, learning that the person who was found guilty of the violent crime was not the true perpetrator is an entirely new trauma, she said. 

“It calls into question issues around healing that’s occurred in the past or that is ongoing,” Tate said. “It just entirely disrupts the emotional and chronological and legal process for the victim.”

In 2011, when the detectives first told Burke that the DNA from her attack did not match Haynesworth’s, she was in disbelief. 

“They went on to explain that in 1984, that match was blood type,” Burke said, to which the audience visibly reacted. A blood type match means that the match was based on only the type of blood, for example, Type O or Type AB — not on DNA. 

“Those details that I had spent so much time looking and watching and paying attention to were absolutely wrong," Burke said. "And it crushed you. It just crushes you.”

Tate stressed that it was a set of structures within the American criminal justice system that have existed for many years — not Burke’s actions — which put Haynesworth in prison. 

One of these structures is race, Armbrust and Tate agreed. To go from a high school student who had never been in trouble before to sexually assaulting five women in a month is a big jump, Armbrust said. 

“I don’t think that jump is made if he’s white,” Armbrust said. “And I think there are assumptions that people in our criminal justice system make about people of color, particularly black men, that lead to situations like Thomas’s.”

Marquise Trent, a Richmond resident, attended the event after hearing about it from friends. Trent felt that the panel was so powerful because Burke and Armbrust, two Caucasian women, were participating in the fight for equality, he said. 

Claire King, a first-year student in Tate’s Wrongful Convictions first-year seminar course, attended the panel to learn more about wrongful conviction cases. The opportunity to hear from people who had experienced errors within the criminal justice system seemed intriguing, King said. 

"I couldn’t imagine the woman who had accused this man and the man who had to serve so much time, I couldn’t imagine them sitting together,” she said. “I was really excited about that possibility.”

King enjoyed listening to Haynesworth and Burke respond to one another. Their friendship and Hayneworth’s generosity and forgiveness seemed genuine, she said.

Burke said that meeting Haynesworth was a significant part of her healing process. 

“He talks me off a ledge every now and then,” she said. “I had a meltdown Friday and he was there to help me through it.”

Haynesworth acknowledged that he had felt sympathy while first listening to Burke testify against him during the trials. When they had first met one-on-one, Burke began crying and apologizing, he said.

“I just told her, ‘You don’t need to apologize, cause we are both victims in the system,’” Haynesworth said. “She made honest mistakes.” 

Haynesworth is the epitome of love and forgiveness, Trent said.

“He’s on the stand for his life and he’s concerned about her,” Trent said. “That is beyond powerful.” 

Moving forward, Haynesworth and Burke are committed to continuing their advocacy work in wrongful convictions, justice reform and survivors of violent crime.

“I think when you know better, you do better,” Burke said. “Where I get very frustrated is when there are places who will not open their minds to a different way of thinking about witness identification, about processing a victim, all those kinds of things.”

For King, it is a team made up of people like Burke, Haynesworth and Armbrust that will make a difference. 

“Teams like that with such varied experiences and expertise," King said, "I think that that’s the most effective kind of team.” 

Contact editor-in-chief Jocelyn Grzeszczak at jocelyn.grzeszczak@richmond.edu.