In 1981, Willie N. Davidson was convicted of rape, sodomy and robbery. After Virginia Governor Mark Warner ordered testing of a random sampling of preserved evidence from a state lab analyst’s files, Davidson was proven innocent in 2005.
On November 27, 1980, Thanksgiving Day, the 66-year-old victim woke in her bed at 5AM to find a man assaulting her. He wore a stocking mask over his face, a cap, gloves and a coat.
The victim was hesitant in identifying her attacker. On the day of the rape, she was too upset to speak. A few days later, she told police that the perpetrator had an unusually large penis, but did not tell police if she knew his name.
Tips from informants led police to Willie Davidson. Six days after the crime, the victim picked Davidson out of a photo array. She then said, “This is Willie. I know him, he visited me on the day before the attack.” The next day, her daughter called police and told them that the victim was sure Davidson was her attacker. The police then brought the victim to the jail, put a stocking on Davidson’s head and asked the victim if he looked like her attacker. She responded affirmatively.
The Biological Evidence and Trial
A lab analyst testified at Davidson’s trial that semen was found on tissues that the perpetrator had used to clean himself after the rape. Serology testing on the tissues revealed Type O blood group, which matched the victim’s blood type. Davidson is a nonsecretor, meaning his blood type can’t be determined from bodily fluids like semen. The analyst overstated the results, however, saying that the perpetrator must have been Type O or a nonsecretor, when in fact the victim’s blood type could have “masked” any evidence of the perpetrator on the tissues. When the evidence being tested is a mixed stain of semen from the perpetrator and vaginal secretions from the victim – and testing does not detect blood group substance or enzymes foreign to the victim – no potential semen donor can be excluded. Under such circumstances, the failure to inform the jury that 100% of the male population could be included and that none can be excluded is highly misleading.
The analyst also testified that she examined pubic hairs collected from the crime scene and determined that two were “consistent” with the victim’s hairs and one was “consistent” with Davidson’s hair. Because there is not adequate empirical data on the frequency of various class characteristics in human hair, an analyst’s assertion that hairs are consistent is inherently prejudicial and lacks probative value.
The victim testified at trial that she had known Davidson and his family all his life and he had been like a grandson to her. Davidson's family had moved away years before and the victim had not seen him again until the day before the attack, when he and his family stopped by her house to visit.
Davidson said that he was at home sleeping while the crime was being committed. His family members supported his alibi at trial.
Davidson was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
In 2001, testing exonerated Virginia inmate Marvin Anderson. Evidence from his case, thought have been lost, had been located in the laboratory notebook of a forensic analyst.
Mary Jane Burton, the analyst who performed conventional serology on Anderson’s case in 1982 and also worked on Davidson’s case. Had she followed policy and returned the partially used swabs to the rape kit, all evidence in this case may have been forever lost.
Evidence that Burton saved was crucial in two other Virginia exonerations, those of Julius Earl Ruffin and Arthur Lee Whitfield. The Innocence Project and others pushed for a review of cases in Burton’s file, and Gov. Warner ordered in 2004 that a random ten percent of Burton’s cases be tested. Evidence from 31 cases was tested, including the swabs and tissues from Davidson’s conviction.
On December 14, 2005, Gov. Warner announced that the testing had exonerated two Virginia inmates, who were later identified as Davidson and Phillip Thurman, who was convicted for an unrelated rape and assault. Davidson had already been released from prison in 1992. On December 22, 2005, Gov. Warner granted both men full pardons.