Joseph Lamont Abbitt was exonerated on September 2, 2009 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, after serving 14 years in prison for two rapes he didn't commit. He was convicted based in part on eyewitness misidentifications.
In the early morning of May 2, 1991, two sisters, ages 13 and 16, awoke in their Winston-Salem, North Carolina, home to get ready for school only to discover an intruder had entered their home through a kitchen window. The intruder raped the two girls at knifepoint and bound their hands and feet. The attacker was in the home for over an hour before leaving.
The Investigation and Identification
Although the opportunity to see the attacker's face was limited, the victims told investigators that their attacker looked like Joseph Abbitt, a man who had previously lived in the neighborhood and had been a visitor to their home. The girls separately identified Abbitt in a photographic lineup and police focused on him as the primary suspect. Rape kits were collected from the victims along with other evidence from the crime scene including bedding and clothing. DNA testing conducted on a piece of clothing did not match Abbitt, but the clothing wasn't tied directly to the crime. Other DNA tests were inconclusive.
Police issued a warrant for Abbitt's arrest, but learned upon investigation that he had left the state. Abbitt was located in 1994 in Texas, being held in jail for bounced check charges. He was transported back to North Carolina.
Abbitt was tried before a jury in June 1995. At trial, the victims testified that Abbitt was the man who attacked them. Abbitt maintained an alibi that he was working the day of the crime, and although his employer testified, he could not provide a time card due to the four-year time lapse from the crime to the trial. Based almost exclusively on the eyewitness identifications by the two young victims, Abbitt was convicted of rape, burglary and kidnapping and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences plus an additional 110 years. Abbitt appealed his conviction but it was upheld in May 1996.
The Post-Conviction Appeals and Exoneration
In 2005, Abbitt applied to The North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence for assistance with his case. The organization accepted his case and began to search for evidence that could be subjected to DNA testing.
At the time of Abbitt's conviction, police were not required to preserve evidence after conviction. Although most of the evidence from the crime scene had been destroyed by the county clerk's office, a few items, including the rape kit, were located at the Winston-Salem police department. New DNA testing conducted on the evidence was initially inconclusive, but a second round of testing on one of the rape kits excluded Abbitt as the perpetrator. He was set free and officially exonerated on September 2, 2009, after serving 14 years in prison for crimes he didn't commit. Abbitt died in a traffic accident in March 2015.