In December 2001, Marvin Lamont Anderson became the ninety-ninth person in the United States to be exonerated due to postconviction DNA testing.
On December 14, 1982, then 18 years old, Anderson was convicted by a jury of robbery, forcible sodomy, abduction, and two counts of rape. The court sentenced Anderson to a total of two hundred and ten years imprisonment in the Virginia State Penitentiary.
Anderson went to prison in 1983 and was released after fifteen years, facing lifetime parole. After being paroled, Anderson continued his efforts to clear his name.
The victim, a young white woman, was brutally raped on July 17, 1982, by a black man who was a total stranger who approached her on a bicycle. The assailant beat her, threatened her with a gun, raped her, and sodomized her. After she reported the crime, a police officer singled out Marvin Anderson as a suspect because the perpetrator had told the victim that he "had a white girl," and Marvin Anderson was the only black man the officer knew who lived with a white woman.
Because Anderson had no criminal record, the officer went to Anderson's employer and obtained a color employment photo identification card. The victim was shown the color identification card and a half dozen black-and-white mug shots of other men and then asked to pick the perpetrator. The victim identified Anderson as her assailant. Within an hour of the photo spread, she was asked to identify her assailant from a lineup. Marvin Anderson was the only person in the lineup whose picture was in the original photo array shown to the victim. She identified him in the lineup as well.
At trial, the victim testified in detail regarding the assault. In addition to the rape, she testified that her assailant pried her mouth open and inserted his penis and that he forced her to consume fecal matter and urinated on her. She again identified Anderson as her assailant. The serology work completed by the Virginia Bureau of Forensic Science was uninformative.
Anderson's trial counsel offered an alibi defense which included Anderson's white girlfriend. From the very beginning of the case, people in the community became aware that the most likely suspect was another black man named John Otis Lincoln. The bicycle that had been identified as being used by the assailant was identified by the owner, who said that Lincoln had stolen it from him approximately one half hour before the rape. Although Anderson requested that his attorney call both the owner of the bicycle and Lincoln as witnesses, his counsel declined. An all-white jury convicted Anderson on all counts. Although it was his first conflict with the law, he received consecutive sentences totaling two hundred and ten years.
In 1988, John Otis Lincoln came forward and admitted his involvement in the crime in an effort to clear Anderson. At a state habeas hearing in August 1988, Lincoln confessed and offered details of the crime under oath, in open court. Nevertheless, the same judge that presided over the original trial declared Lincoln a liar and refused to vacate the conviction. A coalition of civil rights groups, church leaders, and members of the state legislature petitioned then governor Wilder for clemency in 1993, which was denied.
In the years after his conviction, after DNA testing became widely available, Anderson sought to prove his innocence of the crime. He insisted that the spermatozoa and semen samples be subjected to DNA analysis. His lawyers were told by the police, prosecutor, and court that the rape kit and its contents had been destroyed. Anderson then contacted the Innocence Project and his case was accepted in 1994.
In 2001, Dr. Paul Ferrara, Director of the Virginia Division of Forensic Science, advised the Innocence Project that certain physical evidence from the case - including sperm and semen samples recovered from the victim's body - had been located in the laboratory notebook of Mary Burton, the criminalist who performed conventional serology in 1982. Had Burton followed policy and returned the partially used swabs to the rape kit, all evidence in this case would have been forever lost.
The Innocence Project contacted the Commonwealth Attorney for Hanover County, who agreed that the Division of Forensic Science should conduct DNA tests on the evidence.
In April 2001, however, the Director of the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services denied the request for testing, citing "[t]he current number of cases pending in the Division and the potential for establishing an unwelcome precedent." The Director announced that the department would permit postconviction scientific testing "only upon a defendant's attorney showing ample cause for the court or the Governor's Office to order such testing."
In May 2001, Virginia adopted a new statute, VA Code Sec. 19.2-327.1, that permitted individuals convicted of a felony to ask the Circuit Court that entered the original conviction to order new scientific analysis of previously untested scientific evidence. The Innocence Project, in conjunction with the Innocence Project of the National Capital Region at American University, filed a request under this new statute and won in the fall of 2001, initiating the process of getting the evidence in Anderson's case tested.
On December 6, 2001, the results excluded Anderson as the perpetrator. Because the evidence was heavily degraded, the profile obtained was limited to four STR markers. When the profile was run against Virginia's convicted offender DNA database, it matched two inmates. Although the identity of these two men was not officially revealed, it appeared that one of the inmates was John Otis Lincoln.
On August 21, 2002, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner granted Anderson a full pardon. He had spent fifteen years in prison and four years on parole fighting to prove his innocence.
Over the next three years, four more defendants in Virginia were exonerated by DNA testing performed on biological material from rape kit swabs and pieces of cloth preserved in Burton's files. In 2005, then-Governor Mark Warner ordered testing of biological evidence from 1973 through 1988 that could be found in Burton’s files.