Nathaniel Hatchett was 17 years old when he was arrested in Michigan for a rape he didn’t commit. Although DNA testing pointed to his innocence before trial, he was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He would serve a decade in prison before new DNA tests led to his exoneration.
On the night of November 11, 1996, a woman was attacked by a hooded man as she entered her car outside a Super K-Mart store in Sterling Heights, Michigan. The man approached her car before she could close the door and claimed he had a gun. He forced her to move to the passenger seat and give him her keys. He drove the car and forced the victim to perform oral sex on him while he drove. Eventually, he pulled the car over and vaginally raped the victim in the car. Throughout the incident, the perpetrator had a hood covering his head and threatened to kill the victim if she looked at him. He finally drove the car to a highway on-ramp, where he stopped and forced the victim to exit the car. She ran to a nearby doughnut shop, where she called police and reported the crime.
The victim was taken to a hospital emergency room, where doctors examined her and collected her clothing and biological evidence samples from her body. The victim described the perpetrator as an African-American man and gave police information about her car, a 1990 Dodge Spirit. Days later, on November 15, a police officer in Detroit noticed a car with license plates matching the victim’s. Police stopped the car and determined that two of the five men in the car resembled the victim’s description of the perpetrator. Nathaniel Hatchett, the driver, was one of these two men and he was brought to a Detroit police station.
Hatchett was transported to the Sterling Heights Police Department later that same day, where police officers say he waived his Miranda rights and gave a detailed confession to the rape of the victim.
Hatchett has always maintained his innocence. He says that police officers told him during the interrogation that he could go home after answering questions, so he told them what they wanted to hear. He has also said that he and friends found the victim’s car abandoned in his neighborhood, and he admitted to driving it.
Based on the false admissions and the fact that Hatchett was arrested driving the victim’s car, he was charged with kidnapping, carjacking, armed robbery and criminal sexual conduct. A bench trial began on March 3, 1998. Testing on several items of biological evidence was conducted at the Michigan State Police crime lab before trial. A pubic hair collected from the victim’s car was subjected to microscopic testing, and a forensic analyst from the lab testified that the hair had similar characteristics to Hatchett’s pubic hair. The victim also identified Hatchett in court as the perpetrator.
Also presented at trial was evidence that tests in the crime lab had revealed semen on the victim’s vaginal swab and her underwear. Before Hatchett’s trial, DNA testing on these items revealed a male genetic profile that did not match Hatchett. After prosecutors learned that DNA testing had excluded Hatchett, they requested that the victim’s husband’s genetic profile be compared to the evidence collected from the victim’s body. The victim’s husband was also excluded as a possible contributor of the semen, but this information was apparently not shared with defense attorneys and no evidence of the husband’s exclusion was presented at trial.
Although the prosecutor knew that the victim’s husband had been excluded by DNA testing six months earlier, he referred to the husband in closing arguments as a possible contributor of the foreign evidence. “We really can’t speculate whether another person, the husband, the Lone Ranger, created any vaginal deposits that were eventually tested,” he said.
Despite DNA evidence pointing to his innocence, Hatchett was convicted of all charges and sentenced to 25 to 40 years in prison.
Less than a year after his conviction, Hatchett filed his first appeal, arguing that DNA testing on evidence from the crime scene had already proven his innocence and that his admission of guilt was false. Prosecutors responded to this appeal by arguing that the DNA evidence was “only one piece of evidence in a three day, ten witness trial” and that it may have been flawed or may have come from the victim’s husband.
The Cooley Innocence Project accepted Hatchett’s case in 2006, and soon began searching for the biological evidence. When the evidence was located in the State Police crime lab, Hatchett’s attorneys requested that new DNA testing be conducted to confirm that the semen sample on the vaginal swab excluded Hatchett, the victim and the victim’s husband. When the test results excluded all three in 2008, Hatchett’s attorneys filed a motion for a new trial. Prosecutors agreed to support the motion, and filed for the dismissal of all charges against Hatchett. His charges were dismissed and he was released from prison on April 14, 2008.