On February 6, 1986, at about 6:40 p.m., a 29-year-old real estate agent was finishing up her work day at a model home in a housing development in Waldorf, Maryland, when a man dressed in a plaid flannel shirt, jeans and work boots came through the front door. The woman thought he was the development builder and turned her attention away long enough for the man to pull a stocking over his face and draw a hunting knife.
The man put the knife to the woman’s throat and marched her through the house to ensure no one else was there. He turned off light switches and locked the doors, then tied her sweater over her head to blind her, took off her clothes and raped her. He rifled through her purse, told her not to do anything for 10 minutes and fled.
The woman called police and was able to provide a partial description of her attacker’s face because she said he pulled up the stocking to kiss her. A Charles County Sheriff’s detective thought the rape was similar to another that occurred more than a year earlier, on December 9, 1984, a few miles away. In that case, the woman was also a real estate agent who was attacked in a model home around 6 p.m. The detective found more than a dozen other similarities, including the clothing worn by the attacker, the physical size of the attacker, the manner of the assault, the use of a hunting knife, and the fact that both attackers wore a woman’s stocking to conceal their faces.
The detective began pursuing the cases as an investigation into a serial rapist. Numerous interviews were conducted with both victims and a package of information was sent to the FBI in the hope that a profile of a suspect could be created.
By April 1986, however, the investigation had stalled. The detective decided to interview 25-year-old Jerry Lee Jenkins, who had been recently arrested on an unrelated crime and was being held in the Charles County Jail.
The detective took a photograph of Jenkins, but when he prepared a photo lineup for the victim of the February 1986 rape, he used a 1981 photograph of Jenkins—taken five years before. The victim said Jenkins “looked like” her attacker, but she was not positive it was him.
Not long after, a blood analysis of the biological evidence in the 1984 rape excluded Jenkins as the rapist. Authorities chose to abandon the serial rapist theory and on October 3, 1986, Jenkins was charged with the 1986 rape.
He went on trial on June 30, 1987. The victim admitted that a composite sketch she helped prepare after the attack was not “real successful” in resembling Jenkins and that she only briefly saw the bottom of her attacker’s face. She admitted to the jury, “I cannot say that I can positively identify him.”
A serology expert for the FBI testified that blood tests showed that Jenkins was within four percent of the population that could have committed the rape.
The trial lasted nine hours. The jury deliberated for 10 hours before convicting Jenkins.
Jenkins then filed a motion for new trial and a request that the evidence be submitted for DNA testing, which was then in its infancy in U.S. courts. The tests were performed, but the results were inconclusive. In January 1988, Jenkins was sentenced to life in prison.
In 1995, after losing his appeal of the conviction and filing several unsuccessful motions for DNA testing by more modern methods, Jenkins obtained a hearing on a motion for new trial alleging his trial defense attorney had provided inadequate legal assistance for failing to present evidence that the state had once suspected the rape was the work of a serial rapist.
Jenkins’ attorney said he had seen that type of evidence used in television programs and movies, but didn’t believe it carried much weight. “The police are not interested in who the defense wants to point a finger at,” the lawyer said. “The prosecutor usually isn’t either.”
Jenkins’ motion was denied, but the judge was troubled, noting that “there could be no stronger evidence for the defendant than evidence that two similar crimes were committed, and that the defendant couldn’t possibly have committed one of them.” The judge said that the evidence, if introduced, could have produced “a substantial possibility” that Jenkins would have been acquitted.
Ultimately, though, the judge denied the motion because he said he was not certain whether Maryland’s evidentiary rules allowed such evidence.
Jenkins then wrote to the Innocence Project in New York, which handles only cases in which evidence can be submitted for DNA testing. But after an extensive search of the Charles County courthouse, the State’s Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office and the Sheriff’s Office failed to turn up the evidence in the case, no action was taken.
In 2000, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that evidence of another perpetrator was permissible at trial and Jenkins then filed another motion for new trial. The prosecution, mindful of the judge’s prior comments about the weakness of the case, offered Jenkins a deal. The prosecution would agree to have the conviction vacated if he were to enter an Alford plea (where the defendant does not admit guilt, but concedes the prosecution has sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction). In return, the state would recommend a new sentence of 40 years in prison and if Jenkins were to remain trouble-free in prison, the state would recommend that he be released in 2010 and be put on probation.
Jenkins, by this point, with all searches for biological evidence in the case seemingly exhausted and virtually no legal avenues left, accepted the deal in the hope he would obtain his freedom while he was still alive.
In October 2004, a DNA profile of the evidence in the unsolved 1984 rape was submitted to the FBI’s DNA database, CODIS. The profile matched Norman Derr, who was already serving three life sentences in Virginia for a June 1988 rape in Fredericksburg that was extremely similar to the two rapes in Charles County.
Derr had been paroled in 1981 after serving time for burglary and forcible sodomy in Richmond, Virginia. He was suspect of at least six different rapes in Henrico County, Virginia in 1981 and 1982, and was prosecuted in two of them and acquitted in both. There were no rapes in Henrico County while Derr was in custody.
Derr was charged with an attack on a woman in Spotsylvania County, Virginia on October 31, 1985. He was arrested as he fled when his intended victim said her husband was coming. Derr was released on bond. He did not go to trial on that case until June 1986—after the attack for which Jenkins was charged—but was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. However, that conviction was overturned on appeal because police had unlawfully obtained some evidence and Derr was released in 1988. One month later a woman was raped in Fredericksburg and identified Derr as her attacker. He was convicted and was sentenced to life in prison.
Jenkins then filed yet another petition for a new trial based on the link to Derr. But because the time period for filing such a motion had expired, the motion was denied.
In 2006, Derr was convicted in Charles County District Court of the 1984 rape and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. (In 2012, the conviction was set aside on a non-evidentiary reason and the prosecution said it would retry him.)
In 2007, Jenkins wrote to the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project seeking help. The Project began investigating Jenkins’ case with the hope of finding non-DNA evidence that could show his innocence. In 2010, Jenkins was released from prison pursuant to his plea agreement.
Meanwhile, in February 2011, Derr was linked to another unsolved rape when a DNA profile from the 1984 rape of a woman in Hanover County, Virginia was matched to Derr through the FBI database.
In 2011, as the Project was preparing to file another petition for new trial based on the Derr evidence, they made one last attempt to locate the physical evidence in Jenkins’ case.
In a stunning surprise, in June 2011, the Charles County Sheriff’s Office reported that a search of its storage facility had turned up a battered box that contained hairs from the victim’s rape kit, hairs from the scene of the crime and fingernail scrapings, along with the victim’s purse.
Jenkins suggested that DNA tests be performed on the hair to determine if semen was present. The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project filed a petition for DNA testing on the evidence in Jenkins’ case in December 2011. The tests were ordered in February 2012 and identified a DNA profile that excluded Jenkins and matched Derr’s DNA profile.
In February 2013, the Project filed a motion for a new trial. On June 7, the motion, supported by the Charles County State’s Attorney’s Office, was granted and the case was dismissed.
Jenkins is not the only person wrongly convicted of a crime committed by Derr. In 2015, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe granted an absolute pardon to Michael McAlister
, who was convicted of a 1986 sexual assault in Richmond and sentenced to 35 years in prison. McAlister's petition was sought by the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and the prosecution.
– Maurice Possley