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Winston Scott

Other Virginia DNA Exonerations
At about 4:30 a.m. on July 24, 1975, a 24-year-old woman known as J.D. was raped in her apartment in Reston, Virginia. She would tell police that the man came in through an open balcony door, sexually assaulted her, and then left. Her boyfriend came over, and they called the police. As part of the investigation, the police took the clothes that J.D. was wearing, and a vaginal swab was obtained as well.

The room had been dark, and the woman told police she did not get a good view of her assailant, but she described him as a light-skinned, young, African-American man. With the help of a forensic artist, a composite sketch was created.

The investigation stalled. A month later, on August 20, the police were at the home of a man named James Hale on an unrelated matter. They showed the sketch to Hale’s sister, and she said it looked like Hale’s friend, 19-year-old Winston Scott. After obtaining a photograph of Scott, they created a photo array to show to J.D. While the police did not tell her that a potential suspect was in the array, she assumed that was the case. She picked Scott as her likely assailant, later recalling that she was not emphatic about her identification at the time, but rather that if “If had to pick one of these photos as the person that … raped me, it would be this person.”

Scott was arrested on September 29, 1975 and charged with rape, sodomy, and statutory burglary.

His one-day trial in Fairfax County Circuit Court was on January 26, 1976. J.D. testified, and now she was certain that Scott had attacked her. The state had done two rounds of forensic testing on the evidence collected at J.D.’s apartment. The first had eliminated Scott as a potential contributor. The second test came back with Scott’s same blood type on the semen stains on J.D.’s pants, but because Scott wasn’t a secretor, there was no way to connect him to the sample. The state called the evidence inconclusive.

When Scott’s attorney sought to question the state’s forensic analyst about these results, the prosecutor pushed back. He said he wanted both reports included or he would object based on a potential gap in the chain of custody of this evidence. To close that gap, Scott’s attorney sought to recall J.D. to testify about the jeans. To avoid that situation, the state then stipulated that the jeans were the victim’s and that there was no chain-of-custody issue.

Scott’s alibi was that he was sleeping over at the home of a friend on the night of the attack. He testified that he remembered the day because the friend’s father had bought a lawnmower, and there was a receipt that showed it was the correct day. The friend and his mother both testified that Scott had slept over and was there in the morning. In addition, Scott didn’t have a car, and J.D.’s apartment was nearly five miles away.

The jury quickly convicted him of rape, sodomy, and burglary. A month later, on February 26, 1976, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison. After serving five years, he was paroled on May 26, 1981. Separately, Scott was convicted of a burglary that happened in the same area the week after the rape was reported. He said he was innocent, but the woman who lived in the apartment testified that he was the intruder. She had been shown Scott’s picture in a photo array after he had been arrested on the rape charge.

Between 2001 and early 2005, five defendants in Virginia–Marvin Anderson, Julius Ruffin, Arthur Lee Whitfield, Willie Davidson, and Philip Thurman–were exonerated by DNA testing. The testing was possible after officials discovered that biological material from rape kit swabs and pieces of cloth were preserved in the case files of Mary Jane Burton, a deceased forensic analyst in the Virginia Department of Forensic Science.

In 2005, then-Governor Mark Warner ordered testing of all potentially probative biological evidence from 1973 through 1988 that could be found in Burton’s files.

By 2012, five more defendants had been exonerated by DNA testing of biological evidence in Burton's files: Curtis Moore, Victor Burnette, Thomas Haynesworth, Calvin Wayne Cunningham, and Bennett Barbour.

In 2013, DNA testing on evidence from Garry Diamond’s case file exonerated him of a 1976 rape of a woman whose car had broken down along a Virginia interstate highway. Then in 2018, Roy Watford III became the 12th person exonerated based on testing of evidence in Burton's files.

Burton had also done Scott’s testing, and she had saved some of the fabric from J.D.’s jeans. Now living in Indiana, Scott was notified in November 2016 that there was usable DNA from the sample retained by Burton. He was advised to retain an attorney, and he immediately contacted the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. He submitted a DNA sample in May 2017, and on August 1, 2017, he was told that a comparison against the evidentiary sample eliminated him as a contributor (J.D.’s boyfriend at the time was also eliminated.).

Scott filed a petition for a writ of actual innocence with the Virginia Supreme Court on September 28, 2017. The state opposed the motion. It argued that Scott hadn’t proved his innocence; either the police grabbed the wrong pair of jeans for testing, or the jeans were the right jeans, but the semen stains found weren’t from the attack but from some other event such as a contamination as a result of laundering.

Noting in particular the prosecutor’s stipulation at trial, the court rejected those arguments, granting Scott’s petition on March 7, 2019. “No rational trier of fact would have found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” the court said, “in that he has been scientifically proven by DNA analysis to not be the source of the sperm found on the victim’s jeans or the male DNA found on the vaginal swab obtained from the victim.”

In April 2020, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation awarding Scott $159,535 in compensation.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 3/15/2019
Last Updated: 4/16/2020
Most Serious Crime:Sexual Assault
Additional Convictions:Burglary/Unlawful Entry
Reported Crime Date:1975
Sentence:14 years
Age at the date of reported crime:19
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes