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Sullivan Walter

Other Exonerations from Orleans Parish, Louisiana
On the night of May 10, 1986, a 35-year-old woman (L.S.) was attacked as she was showering in her home in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans, Louisiana. The woman, who was white, told police that a Black man whose lower face was covered with a washcloth, put a knife to her throat and covered her head with a shirt. The man said that if she cooperated with him, he would not harm the woman’s eight-year-old son who was asleep.

The woman said she was marched into an unlit empty bedroom and forced to engage in oral sex and then was vaginally raped twice. The man then left, and the woman called the police.

L.S. said the attacker was 18 to 20 years old, slender, 5 feet 11 inches tall, with thick eyebrows, jheri curls, two or three day’s stubble, and wearing a backwards baseball cap. Police collected the shorts L.S. put on after the attack. She was taken to the hospital where a rape kit was obtained. An examiner said that an ultraviolet light had a positive reading for the presence of seminal fluid.

On May 12, 1986, Patricia Daniels, a medical technologist at the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office Forensic Laboratory received the rape kit. She reported that the vaginal swabs were positive for seminal fluid and a vaginal smear was positive for sperm. Daniels determined that L.S. had blood type O. Daniels did not identify any other blood substances on the swabs or a saliva sample from L.S.

On May 13, 1986, Harry O’Neal, a criminalist with the New Orleans Police Department crime laboratory reported that stains on the shorts were positive for the presence of sperm, and that there was no secretor activity. Approximately 80 percent of the population are secretors, which means their blood type shows up in their bodily secretions. The remaining 20 percent are nonsecretors, which means their blood type can be determined only by testing their blood and cannot be determined from their body secretions.

On May 14, 1986, L.S. worked with a police sketch artist to create a composite drawing of her attacker.

On June 23, 1986, police arrested 17-year-old Sullivan Walter for a burglary. A police officer who believed that Walter resembled the composite notified the detective handling the rape investigation. On June 26, 1986, a photo of Walter was included in a seven-person photographic array. L.S. identified Walter as her attacker, and he was arrested.

On November 13, 1986, Walter was indicted on charges of aggravated rape, aggravated burglary, and two counts of aggravated crime against nature. Although a juvenile, he was charged as an adult.

On December 2, 1986—less than a month later, Walter went to trial in Orleans Parish District Court. On the morning the trial began, the prosecution, for the first time, turned over the report from O’Neal to James Dunn, Walter’s defense attorney.

The prosecution did not turn over, however, an August 1986 report of O’Neal’s analysis of Walter’s blood and saliva samples. In that report, O’Neal said that Walter’s blood was not suitable for analysis and the saliva indicated no secretor activity.

Dunn did not seek to delay the trial. He had not retained an expert. He presented no evidence at all, let alone what Walter’s blood type was and whether he was a secretor or nonsecretor.

Had that been done, testing would have shown that Walter had blood type B and was a secretor—results that would have excluded him as being the source of the sperm left by the rapist.

The prosecution’s case consisted of the testimony of L.S., who identified Walter as her attacker and also identified the blue baseball cap that Walter was wearing when he was arrested. There was contradictory testimony between the detective and L.S. over whether she had initially said her attacker had facial hair or “a few straggly hairs.” The jury did not learn that L.S.’s initial description was that he was unshaven.

The jury also did not hear that the light was off in the bedroom where she was raped, and that the attacker ordered her not to look at him when the light was turned on. Dunn had marked a report containing that information as an exhibit, but never offered it into evidence or asked about its contents. Walter did not frequent the neighborhood where the crime occurred–evidence that could have been presented by the defense but was not.

O’Neal testified, “In this particular case, examination of seminal fluid revealed no secretory activity which would indicate that the individual who left the seminal fluid stains was a non-secretor.”

The trial began and ended, including three hours of jury deliberation, on December 2, 1986. Walter was convicted of all the charges. On December 16, 1986, he was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Dunn appealed, arguing that the trial was unfair because of the late disclosure of O’Neal’s report. On October 7, 1987, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the conviction. The court said that Dunn had not sought any remedies for the late disclosure and had not sought to seek test results. However, the court remanded the case back to the trial court so that Walter could file a motion for a new trial.

On January 15, 1988, the police crime lab determined that Walter was blood type B and was a secretor. At a hearing on the motion for a new trial on April 8, 1988, Dunn presented the test results. The prosecution called O’Neal, who now testified that he “could not say whether” the stain on the shorts was left by a nonsecretor. His explanations were that the stain “could conceivably be too dilute" or that the clipping of cloth that was tested was “outside the original realm of the stain.” Dunn asked no questions of O’Neal, and the hearing ended.

On July 1, 1988, the motion for a new trial was denied without a written ruling. Decades later, no transcript of the ruling could be found.

Dunn was granted leave to appeal, but never filed anything. The case then twisted and turned, and, in seeming defiance of the truth of the lab results, failed to get any traction in the legal system.

In May 1992, the Court of Appeal determined that no appeal had been filed and ordered the District Court to determine the status of the case. In August 1992, the District Court appointed the Orleans Indigent Defender Program to represent Walter. But nothing was done.

In September 1994, the Court of Appeal, noting the lack of activity, ordered the District Court to “provide this Court with the notice of appeal and to take all necessary steps to lodge those portions of the record required to determine the merits of the appeal of the denial of the motion for new trial.”

In September 1995, more than seven years after the new trial was denied, an appellate brief was filed on Walter’s behalf. It listed—incorrectly—Walter’s name as Walter Sullivan on the cover page.

The Court of Appeal found that the District Court had not abused its discretion in denying the new trial, but in June 1997, the Louisiana Supreme Court remanded the case back to the Court of Appeal to consider whether the late disclosure of O’Neal’s report was a violation of the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brady v. Maryland, which requires the disclosure of exculpatory evidence to the defense.

The appeals court denied that claim as well, although it cited incorrect legal standards for doing so. Walter’s appellate lawyer did not seek further review.

Walter remained in prison without legal representation from that time on until 2021 when Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO) began reinvestigating the case and referred it to the Civil Rights Division of the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office. The biological evidence in the case had long since been destroyed. L.S. had died in 2011.

The defense reached out to Alan Keel, a forensic expert, who reviewed the transcripts of the trial, the post-conviction hearing on the motion for a new trial, and the reports of Daniels and O’Neal.

Keel concluded: “While there is insufficient documentation to independently verify Officer O’Neal’s trial testimony, clearly Officer O’Neal believed at trial that the perpetrator was a non-secretor and the documentation is consistent with this belief.”

Keel noted, “Absolutely nothing changed between May 13, 1986 and January 15, 1988 with regard to Officer O’Neal['s] testing of the shorts. If in 1988, Officer O’Neal had genuine doubts as to whether the analysis that he performed in 1986 supported his belief…at trial that the semen source was a nonsecretor, he should have repeated his initial analysis.”

Regarding O’Neal’s testimony at the post-conviction hearing, Keel said, “A claim by an analyst of not being sure if he tested the stain when testing for secretor status is disingenuous. Officer O’Neal would know that a claim that the area he tested could have been outside the stain was false. If he did not know this was false, he knew that he could not reliably perform a basic task that was part of his job.”

Keel declared, “The shorts and the rape kit testing are inexorably related. Ms. Daniels should have been called to the 1988 hearing to elicit her opinion as to how the new evidence impacted whether Mr. Walter could be eliminated as the source of the semen on the vaginal swabs and shorts. If the vaginal swab and shorts stain findings are accurate, Mr. Walter is eliminated as the semen source and cannot be the assailant in this case.”

Keel also reported “systematic deficiencies” in the way that serological testing was performed by the police crime lab and coroner’s office during the 1980s and early 1990s. Keel suggested that “a comprehensive review of every case in Orleans Parish in which ABO/secretor test findings and testimony may have figured in the conviction of a defendant” should be conducted.

On August 25, 2022, Emily Maw, chief of the district attorney’s Civil Rights Division, and IPNO attorney Richard Davis filed a joint motion to vacate Walter’s convictions and to dismiss the case. The motion noted that Dunn’s errors at trial “ensured that the jury did not hear his client was most likely categorically excluded as the source” of the biological evidence left by the rapist….The state has no interest in defending a conviction obtained by a fundamentally unfair process that likely led to the conviction of the wrong man.”

The motion noted that L.S.’s identification was problematic because of the circumstances—the lighting was poor, she was raped and threatened and ordered not to look at her attacker, and the identification was “cross-racial.” Such situations are well-documented as being prone to erroneous identifications.

Walter was released from prison that day. He had already completed his 35 year sentence and was serving time for a sentence imposed on the unrelated burglary for which he had been originally arrested in 1986.

IPNO attorney Davis said in a statement: “What is unusual about this case is how little effort was made to hide the injustice being done to Mr. Walter. The lawyers and law enforcement involved acted as if they believed that they could do what they chose to a Black teenager from a poor family and would never be scrutinized or held to account.”

“This is not just about individuals and their choices, but the systems that let them happen.”

In 2023, Sullivan filed a claim for $480,000 in state compensation. He also filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking compensation. In May 2024, Sullivan was granted $480,000 in state compensation.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 8/31/2022
Last Updated: 5/21/2024
Most Serious Crime:Sexual Assault
Additional Convictions:Sexual Assault, Burglary/Unlawful Entry
Reported Crime Date:1986
Sentence:35 years
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No