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Dwayne Scruggs

Other Indiana Exonerations
At approximately 8:50 p.m. on February 1, 1986, 16-year-old J.S. had just got off the bus in Indianapolis, Indiana and was walking home after spending Saturday at the mall with friends. As she walked under the overpass for U.S. 65, a man walked past, then grabbed her from behind and put a knife to her throat. He pushed her to a grassy patch, threw her down, then raped her and robbed her of $6. Before fleeing, the man told her to roll over and look at the sky. J.S. went home and called the police. She then went to the hospital.

On February 6, Detective Thomas Sickels interviewed J.S. The statement was recorded and also taken down by a stenographer. J.S., who was Black, described the man who attacked her as about six feet tall with broad shoulders. He had an unkempt beard, “caramel skin,” and facial scarring. He was wearing a green, “Army” jacket and a green winter hat with flaps hanging over the ears. Lastly, he wore “blue jeans and Army boots, black, lace-up.”

After J.S. gave her statement, Sickels asked her to look through a file of about 200 mugshots. J.S. picked out a photo of 32-year-old Dwayne Scruggs and said she was “about 98%” sure that Scruggs was the man who attacked her.

After interviewing J.S., Sickels called Scruggs and asked him to come into the police station for questioning. Scruggs met with Sickels on February 9. The detective read Scruggs his Miranda rights, and Scruggs agreed to be interviewed.

Scruggs said he had been with his uncle and cousin and a young woman around the time of the assault, and he denied any involvement in the attack. At the time of the interview with Sickels, Scruggs was wearing a green army jacket. He also wore boots, although they were tan, not black, and had a paint stain. Sickels took a photograph of the boots.

Scruggs was later arrested and charged with rape and armed robbery.

His trial began in May 1986 in Marion County Superior Court. J.S. identified Scruggs in court and testified that he was the man who raped her. Even though the attack occurred at nearly 9 p.m., J.S. said there was sufficient lighting near the underpass to allow her to get a good look at her attacker. She said there was “no doubt” in her mind that it was Scruggs.

J.S. testified that she did not remember telling Sickels that the man who attacked her wore black boots, and during the trial she identified a photo of Scruggs’s work boots as being those of her attacker.

Sickels testified about his interviews with J.S. and Scruggs. He testified that Scruggs told him that he shaved his beard just before coming in for his interview with the police. During cross-examination, Scruggs’s attorney asked Sickels about what he told J.S. before she looked at the 200 photographs.

“What did you tell her to do with regards to the photo file?”

“OK, I explained to her the photo file we have are individuals who have all been arrested for rape or sexual assault,” Sickels said. (Scruggs had been arrested in 1981 and charged with rape. He later pled to a charge of battery and told Sickels during his interview that a neighbor had accused him of a sex crime after he slapped her during an argument.)

Scruggs’s attorney moved for a mistrial, arguing that Sickels had given improper testimony. The judge denied the request, although he told the jury to disregard Sickels’s answer.

Later, Sickels testified that neither he nor any other officers conducted any investigation to confirm Scruggs’s alibi prior to his arrest.

Scruggs’s attorney did not call any alibi witnesses. The jury convicted Scruggs of rape and robbery on May 13, 1986, and he was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the rape conviction and a concurrent sentence of 20 years for the robbery.

Scruggs appealed, asserting that the trial judge erred in not declaring a mistrial after Sickels testified about the criminal backgrounds of the men whose photos J.S. viewed. The testimony, the appeal said, was a so-called “evidentiary harpoon,” an improper and inadmissible statement that prejudiced the jury against Scruggs. The appeal also said there was insufficient evidence to support the verdict. The appeal said the lighting near the crime scene was poor, and J.S.’s testimony about the boots differed from the actual boots owned by Scruggs.

The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the conviction on August 27, 1987. It said that the trial judge was within his discretion in not granting a mistrial because “the statement of the officer does not appear to be a deliberate harpoon but was an improper statement uttered under the pressure of vigorous cross-examination.” It also said that the discrepancies about the lighting and the boots were proper issues for the jury to decide.

Separately, Scruggs filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, claiming that the state of Indiana’s post-conviction procedure was so protracted that it was ineffective in protecting his rights. The petition was denied. The court ruled that Scruggs’s attorney was the source of the delays.

During his incarceration, Scruggs was a model prisoner. He devoted his time to church, and became close friends with Sherman Lester, a correctional officer who was also a pastor. Scruggs started a male singing group and a gospel choir. He later earned his high school diploma and taught Sunday school lessons to inmates.

At the time of the crime, DNA testing had not been available. In 1991, a public defender named Hope Fey petitioned the court to allow testing of the rape kit performed on J.S.

The sample from the rape kit was tested, and it excluded Scruggs as a contributor. The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office then joined in a petition with Scruggs’s attorneys to vacate his conviction. The motion was granted on December 17, 1993, releasing Scruggs from prison. The charges were dismissed on December 22, 1993.

Upon release, Scruggs went to work for his brother’s painting company. While getting back on his feet, he planned to go back to prison as a chaplain. He did not deny the hardships he had faced, but he “chose to find a positive in it by the leading of God.”

In 1994, Scruggs filed a lawsuit against the Indianapolis Police Department, Sickels, and the prosecutor in his case, seeking $18 million in compensation. Scruggs died in 1995, and the lawsuit was dismissed in 1997.

– Jude Gallagher

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 7/24/2023
Most Serious Crime:Sexual Assault
Additional Convictions:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1986
Sentence:40 years
Age at the date of reported crime:32
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes