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Michael Haas

Other Virginia Exonerations
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In the fall of 1993, the marriage of Michael and Elaine Haas was falling apart. The couple fought constantly and drank excessively. They lived in rural Powhatan County, Virginia, about 30 miles west of Richmond, with their three children: 13-year-old J.H., a girl; 11-year-old A.H., a boy; and 9-year-old L.H, another boy.

At the time, Elaine Haas and her children were seeing a family therapist named Susan Boyles. In December of 1993, J.H. told her mother that she saw L.H. playing with his G.I. Joe dolls in a way that looked like two men having sex. Elaine Haas told this to Boyles, who told her to immediately move out of the family’s house with her three children. The four left on December 15, 1993.

On February 15, 1994, Michael Haas filed a petition seeking visitation rights with his children. On February 18, 1994, A.H. and L.H. met with Boyles, and she reported to Elaine Haas that the boys told her that Michael Haas had repeatedly sodomized them as far back as 1992. Elaine Haas called the police.

A few days later, on February 23, 1994, Elaine Haas filed a petition for divorce. Also on February 23, 1994, Michael Haas had a hearing on his petition for visitation rights. He was arrested that day by Detective Gregory Neal of the Powhatan County Sheriff’s Department and charged with two counts of forcible sodomy.

Haas denied he had harmed his children and asked Neal to have the boys examined by a doctor for signs of abuse. Physicians at the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center in Richmond examined L.H. on February 25, 1994, first placing the boy under anesthesia. A.H. was examined three days later. Elaine Haas told the doctors who examined L.H. that her son had disclosed the abuse by his father. She did not mention any abuse of A.H. prior to his examination. A.H. told the doctors there was no abuse.

Haas, who was 38 years old at the time of his arrest, chose a bench trial, before Judge Thomas Warren of Powhatan County Circuit Court. The trial began and ended on July 22, 1994.

A.H., the older of the two brothers, testified that Haas slept in his bed about once a month in the summer of 1992 and that his father sodomized him about five times. He said that he tried to keep Haas away by sleeping in his clothes, filling his bed with stuffed animals and sleeping with the family dog. He did not recall any abuse of himself or his brother occurring in 1993.

A.H. also testified that Boyles told him – without any prompting – that he had been molested by Haas. A.H. testified that when he denied the abuse, Boyles told him that Haas had come to her and told her what he had done. The day after that session, A.H. said, he told his mother about the alleged abuse.

L.H. testified that Boyles had told him that Haas abused him before L.H. brought it up. He testified that he believed his mother when she told him that his testimony would help his father by allowing Haas to go to a hospital and receive treatment for his temper and drinking.

L.H. gave inconsistent testimony. At various times, he testified that Haas molested him once, twice, lots of times, 20 times per month, and 40 times in one year. He also testified that the abuse ended either in December 1993 or in the summer of 1992.

Elaine Haas testified that she did know about the abuse until several days before the hearing on visitation rights. She said that A.H. told her he slept with the dog to keep Haas away. She also testified that the two boys told her that Haas had threatened to kill her if they disclosed the abuse. She admitted telling her sons that Haas would go to a hospital after the trial “for a while and then he’d be alright.”

J.H. testified against her father and said that A.H. told her about the abuse. Haas’s defense attorney introduced a recording of a telephone call J.H. made to the attorney, where she said that A.H. had denied the abuse. During cross-examination, J.H. said she had made that call at the request of Haas’s mother, who promised to give her clothes and take her to an ice show.

Susan Dodson, Elaine Haas’s sister, testified that Haas began calling her in December 1993, and that their small talk often included Haas asking Dodson, whether she thought “I did it.” In January 1994, Dodson testified that Haas told her that he “screwed the kids, you can go to hell with the rest of them because you can’t prove it.”

Dodson testified that she quickly told her sister about the call. That was at odds with Elaine Haas’s testimony that she first learned of the abuse in mid-February, after the boys talked with Boyles.

Neal testified that L.H. had disclosed the abuse to him during an interview but that the boy did not volunteer what happened and that Neal had to “ask [for] most of the information.” Boyles did not testify.

The state also presented the reports of the physicians who examined A.H. and L.H. at the hospital. Dr. Jil Ryland and Dr. David Marcello, residents at the Medical College of Virginia, examined L.H. and testified that five findings of their exam indicated chronic abuse by anal penetration.

Using photographs during his testimony, Marcello said there was a “ragged appearance to the rectal anal area. It has an uneven pattern to it. There is evidence of decreased tissue wrinkling or folds.” He continued, “There is evidenced loss of subcutaneous tissue between 7 o’clock and 2 o’clock. There is evidence of tears at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock and 12 o’clock. There is evidence of venous congestion.”

Dr. Dinea Desouza, the resident who examined A.H., testified that the boy’s anus showed signs of trauma, including an increased diameter and a loss of tone. She said the injuries were inconsistent with the normal elimination of body waste and that the trauma had to be from an external source.

Dr. Robin Foster, a pediatrician on the hospital’s child-protective team, reviewed the photographs and the reports of the residents. She testified that the photographs displayed trauma in the anal area “consistent with chronic penetrating trauma to that sphincter” that occurred “from the outside to the inside.”

Dr. Robert Mitchell III, a gastroenterologist, testified for Haas. He said he examined the photographs taken by the VCU doctors and was unable “to tell anything from the picture to be honest with you.” He testified that although he had consulted on previous cases involving anal abuse, he had never testified in a case involving children. Because he was not a pediatrician, Mitchell testified, he did not “have any knowledge of a 10-year-old child.”

Haas testified and denied abusing his children and telling his sister-in-law that he had. He said Dodson had made a pass at him, which he rejected.

Warren convicted Haas of both counts. He said the state had presented powerful forensic evidence that corroborated the children’s testimony. He said, “It would be much more difficult for me to decide had I not had the testimony of these four witnesses supported by the pictures. And so it’s not just the pictures, it’s their testimony, they saw it. They felt, in the one case, the rectum of the victim and they saw it close at hand, they made judgments that really are not refuted and certainly are entirely supported by these pictures, which to me are very graphic of abuse.”

Warren rejected the idea that Elaine Haas had created the charges as a way to gain leverage during the divorce proceedings. With regards to the testimony of A.H. and L.H., Warren said he was not bothered by their inconsistencies. “They have a father and the mother on the other side and they are in a strange place, reluctant to testify. They don’t want to testify, they hesitate, but they do tell things occasionally that are a little bit difficult. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was not the case in this sort of a context.”

Warren sentenced Haas to two sentences of life in prison.

Haas began a series of appeals through the state courts, ending in a 2002 decision by the Virginia Supreme Court to reject his state petition for a writ of habeas corpus as untimely.

Haas then turned to the federal courts, filing a habeas petition on August 9, 2003, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. In that petition, Haas introduced a 1999 affidavit from A.H., where he recanted his testimony against his father. A.H. had made a less-detailed recantation in 1997, witnessed by his sister but not notarized.

Haas also claimed his trial attorney was ineffective because he failed to move for separate trials and conduct an adequate investigation. He also claimed prosecutorial misconduct. The petition said that the prosecutor had a conflict of interest, because the prosecutor’s son had given Elaine Haas $25,000.

In addition, Haas said prosecutors failed to turn over exculpatory evidence regarding Boyles, the family therapist. During the time Boyles was counseling the children, she was fraudulently prescribing controlled substances to herself, misconduct that resulted in her license being suspended in 1995.

Judge Richard Williams rejected the habeas petition on Sept. 22, 2003. He said that many of Haas’s claims about misconduct and ineffective assistance of counsel were time-barred, and that his claim of innocence, grounded in his son’s recantation, didn’t pass muster; the forensic evidence was too strong and consistent.

“Despite the fact that [A.H.] now recants his testimony that his father sexually molested him,” Williams wrote. “Haas fails to offer any credible explanation for the physical evidence that [A.H.] and [L.H.] had been subjected to frequent sexual abuse over an extended period of time.”

On May 11, 2010, Haas filed a petition for a writ of actual innocence with the Virginia Court of Appeals. The petition included recantations from all three of the children, now adults, who said they had testified falsely against their father at the urging and coercion of their mother and Boyles. The petition, which asked the appellate court to refer the case to Powhatan County Circuit Court for an evidentiary hearing, also included two affidavits from physicians questioning the forensic evidence used against Haas. Neither physician was able to review the photographs taken at the hospital, which weakened the strength of their affidavits. In its response, the state included affidavits from Elaine Haas and Boyles, denying any coaching of the children.

The Virginia Court of Appeals did not schedule any evidentiary hearings and dismissed the petition on March 1, 2011. Haas appealed, and the Virginia Supreme Court upheld the dismissal on January 13, 2012.

The Supreme Court’s ruling said the appellate court was within its discretion to not order an evidentiary hearing and that it was also correct in dismissing the petition, because Haas hadn’t met the burden, under Virginia law of showing “clear and convincing evidence” of innocence.

Haas was released from prison on December 19, 2017, placed on parole and required to register as a sex offender.

On April 9, 2020, the Virginia State Legislature approved amendments to the state law on petitions for writs of actual innocence, replacing “clear and convincing evidence” with a “preponderance of the evidence.”

The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project had begun representing Haas in 2014. Attorneys with the organization filed a new petition for a writ of actual innocence with the Virginia Court of Appeals on July 30, 2020.

The petition again introduced the recantations of the children, which the Virginia courts in their previous rulings had rejected as insufficient to overcome the forensic evidence. This time, the recantations were bolstered by other evidence.

Dr. Maggie Bruck, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University and an expert on child testimony in abuse cases, wrote in an affidavit that the children’s “allegations of abuse were based upon repeated interviewing, repeated questioning, and explicit teaching with coercion. Given this information, one can only conclude that the children’s allegations were unreliable.”

Bruck noted in her affidavit that Boyles kept no notes or recordings of her therapy sessions. Neal, the detective, conducted at least two interviews with L.H., but only had a transcript from one interview. Bruck’s report was based mainly on the trial transcript and the boys’ testimony.

Bruck said Boyles’s actions during her therapy sessions with A.H. and L.H. “constitute brain-washing.” Before the children had made any disclosure or suggestion of abuse, Bruck wrote, “Boyles started confronting [them] with assertions that Michael had molested them. Over time, she graphically described how their father would have abused them. She also told A.H. that his father had admitted to sexually abusing A.H. and L.H.”

Bruck also wrote that the transcript of Neal’s interview with L.H. showed the detective asking the boy a series of leading questions that assumed abuse had occurred, and because there was no electronic recording, it was impossible to say whether the transcript accurately reflected the interview.

Bruck also said that research on recantations, which wasn’t available at the time of the trial, indicated these events were quite rare in cases of substantiated abuse. In the case of A.H. and L.H., Bruck wrote, “Their recantations are consistent and detailed. They are also consistent with the scientific literature on why non-abused children recant, namely the sources of suggestion that tainted their initial allegations have ceased.”

When Haas filed his 2010 petition, he had been unable to locate the trial photographs of the rectal examinations of his sons. Those photographs were recovered in 2015, and Foster, the pediatrician, was able to find the complete medical records at an off-site storage facility.

Foster reviewed the records and recanted her trial testimony. She said that the standards for determining child abuse used in 1994 were no longer valid.

Based on clinical experience and research since the trial, Foster said, A.H.’s “examination did not present physical findings that were supportive of anal penetration with the caveat that most physical exams in child abuse even with penetration have normal exams.” Similarly, Foster said that L.H.’s examination “would no longer be considered suspicious for anal penetration under today’s standard of care.”

Two other pediatricians with experience in treating victims of child abuse supported Foster’s affidavit. One noted that A.H.’s examination could have been impacted by the sedation, which alters the appearance of the anus, and that the residents “lacked extensive experience in evaluating children for suspected sexual abuse.” In a separate filing made in 2022, the residents whose examinations Foster reviewed said they had not kept up with these issues and were not in a position to question or contradict this new evidence.

Haas’s attorneys wrote in their petition that there was no longer reliable evidence against Haas. The children had recanted. New evidence strongly indicated that their allegations were the product of coercive questioning by a detective and a therapist with her own problems. The forensic evidence, which the trial judge had found so persuasive, had been discredited by the state’s key witness.

“As a result of the new scientific evidence set forth in this Petition, no evidence remains establishing that any crime occurred: there is no medical evidence that the Haas sons had been sexually abused, let alone by their father, and the alleged victims—now men in their thirties—affirm that they were not sexually abused by their father. Both the new medical evidence and the new scientific evidence regarding child interview techniques support the reliability of the Haas sons’ recantations.”

The state’s initial response to the petition said the affidavits of the children recanting their allegations and trial testimony were questionable, and that it was unclear whether the recantations were true. It also said the new forensic evidence did not establish Haas’s innocence; this evidence simply said a review found no clear medical signs of abuse. In addition, the state noted, Dodson’s testimony about Haas’s inculpatory statement wasn’t refuted by the evidence. The state asked the appellate court to order an evidentiary hearing in Powhatan County Circuit Court, which took place on August 31, and September 1, 2021.

By this time, Haas’s attorneys were working collaboratively with the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) created by the office of Attorney General Mark Herring. After the hearing, Haas’s attorneys and the state submitted a joint findings of fact, which Judge Joseph Teefey of Powhatan County Circuit Court adopted as part of his findings on September 24, 2021. The findings noted that the expert evidence by Bruck on how children can be coerced into claiming abuse and by the medical doctors on the changing standards of what constitutes a sign of child abuse weren’t available at the time of Haas’s trial.

On October 22, 2021, the appellate court ordered both parties to file supplemental briefings. Haas filed his brief on November 23, 2021.

The state asked for an extension, after Herring lost his bid for reelection to Jason Miyares. Although Miyares disbanded his predecessor’s CIU, he created a Cold Cases, Actual Innocence and Special Investigations Unit led by Theo Stamos, the former Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington, Virginia. In a request for a continuance, filed on February 7, 2022, the state said that it was reaffirming its position that the Court of Appeals should grant Haas a writ of innocence.

The Court of Appeals held oral arguments on March 24, 2022. On April 19, 2022, the court granted Haas a writ of actual innocence. It said that the evidence presented by Haas was not merely cumulative, corroborative, or collateral. Rather, it was new evidence that directly contradicted trial evidence that he sexually abused his two sons.

Most importantly, the court wrote, the standard for weighing a petition had changed. There was still sufficient evidence to support a conviction, but “sufficiency is no longer the standard. For all the reasons stated above, we are convinced by a preponderance of the evidence that no rational factfinder considering all of the evidence, including Dodson’s testimony, would find beyond a reasonable doubt that Haas committed the offenses.”

Although Haas was already out of prison, the ruling meant that his record would be expunged and he would no longer be required to register as a sex offender.

“This has been a 28-year journey, but I am thankful that truth and justice prevailed,” said Haas.

“We applaud Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, and Special Counsel to the Attorney General, Theo Stamos, for joining us on this case in the interest of justice,” said James Moody, legal director for the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, “Having the support and confidence of the Commonwealth strengthened Mr. Haas’s petition. We applaud the decision of the Court of Appeals, and appreciate their thorough analysis.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 4/27/2022
Last Updated: 4/27/2022
State:Virginia
County:Powhatan
Most Serious Crime:Child Sex Abuse
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1994
Convicted:1994
Exonerated:2022
Sentence:Life
Race/Ethnicity:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:38
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No