On December 10, 2007, John Jerome White walked out of a Georgia prison after serving more than 22 years. Efforts by attorneys and students at the Georgia Innocence Project led to the DNA testing that finally proved White’s innocence.
Early on the morning of August 11, 1979, an intruder broke into a Manchester, Georgia, home to find a 74-year-old woman asleep on her couch. The man beat and raped the woman and then demanded all her money. She gave him $70 cash from her purse; the attacker then pulled the telephone cord out of the wall and left through the back door. The victim was taken to a local hospital for treatment, but no rape kit was collected due to the extent of her injuries. At the victim’s house, Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) crime scene investigators collected pubic hairs from a bed sheet that had been on the couch at the time of the rape and discovered a piece of skin near the couch which was later determined to have come from a person’s hand or foot.
Police created a composite sketch of the attacker from the victim’s description, and a GBI agent who was investigating White on another charge thought he resembled the sketch. White was arrested on September 21, 1979. A week later — six weeks after the crime — the victim picked White out of a photo array, saying she was “almost positive” he was the attacker. She later picked him out of a live lineup. White was the only person in both the photo lineup and live lineup. When DNA testing finally exonerated White in 2007, the DNA profile from the crime scene implicated a man named James Parham, who had also been in the original live lineup.
The victim would later testify at trial that the only light on in her apartment during the attack was a small closet light in an adjacent room. She also said that she was not wearing her prescription eyeglasses at the time.
The Trial and Sentence
Even though White was arrested five weeks after the crime, the GBI agent testified that he had a cut on his hand when he was arrested. A state lab analyst also testified that the pubic hairs collected from the crime scene could have come from White. The analyst testified that the hairs were “similar enough to say they have the same origin.” Hair evidence cannot be individualized based on microscopic analysis. Because there is not adequate empirical data on the frequency of various class characteristics in human hair, it is impossible to say definitively that strands of hair came from the same person based on microscopic comparison.
Sanford Bishop, now a U.S. Representative for Georgia, represented White at trial and pointed out the problems with the eyewitness identification to the jury. Despite the problems with the identification and the lack of any physical evidence connecting him to the crime scene, he was convicted on May 30, 1980 of rape, assault, burglary, and robbery. He was sentenced to life for the rape plus 40 years for the other charges. White maintained his innocence, telling the judge: “I know I didn’t rape that lady.”
White was released on parole as a convicted sex offender in 1990. While on parole he incurred convictions for drug possession and robbery, and in 1997 he was returned to prison to finish out the life sentence for which he was on parole. He served 12.5 more years until his exoneration in 2007.
In 2004, the Georgia Innocence Project sent letters to all prisoners convicted of rape and White responded. The organization accepted his case and began searching for the evidence. In March 2007 a law student working with the Georgia Innocence Project visited the Meriwether County Clerk’s office and found that the pubic hairs from the crime scene had been preserved. (The skin collected from the crime scene had been destroyed.) The Coweta Circuit District Attorney’s Office agreed to conduct DNA testing on the hairs, and the tests were completed on December 6, 2007, proving that another man committed the crime. White was released four days later. In all, he had served more than 22 years in prison. He was 25 years old when he was arrested and 48 when he was exonerated.
After White was exonerated, prosecutors charged James Parham with the rape, based on DNA evidence. He pled guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
* John Jerome White served served 22.5 years in prison in all, after his wrongful conviction in 1980. He was released on parole in 1990 and then convicted of drug possession and robbery in 1997. His sentence is listed as 10-22.5 years because his wrongful conviction was a factor in the 12.5 years he served after his inital release.