Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Marvin Grimm, Jr.

Other Richmond City County, Virginia exonerations
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Marvin_Grimm%202.jpeg
On June 18, 2024, the Virginia Court of Appeals ruled that Marvin Grimm Jr. was innocent of a 1974 abduction, sexual assault and murder of a three-year-old boy in Richmond, Virginia. Grimm, who had pled guilty in 1976, was cleared by DNA tests and expert testimony that his confession to the crime was false. Grimm had been released from prison on April 3, 2020, more than 40 years after he was convicted.

The Virginia Attorney General’s office supported a petition filed in 2023 on behalf of Grimm by a team of lawyers, including lawyers from the Innocence Project. The prosecution’s brief in the case said that the evidence had been so debunked that there was no longer evidence that the boy was the victim of a crime.

The boy, identified in court documents as C.H., was reported missing by his mother on November 22, 1975. She called police at 2:40 p.m. and said she had last seen him about 1:30 p.m. heading toward a wooded area behind their apartment complex in Richmond. Two police officers responded. At 2:45 p.m., they knocked on the door of 20-year-old Marvin Grimm Jr., and asked where C.H.’s family lived. Grimm said they lived across the hall from him.

The response to the report was massive. Nearly 250 civilians and police, including a helicopter, combed the area for four days. At its peak, about 350 people were involved, and the police said it was one of the most intense search operations in Richmond history.

The search ended on November 26, 1975 when the boy’s body was found lying face up and fully clothed in shallow water of the James River, nine miles from his home. His arms were folded across his chest as if he were asleep.

Deputy chief medical examiner Marcella Fierro conducted an autopsy. She concluded that C.H. died from asphyxia before he wound up in the river. She said there was a moderate amount of mucous in the boy’s throat, and that a microscopic analysis of smears “revealed the presence of spermatozoa.” A toxicology report indicated the presence of alcohol, acetaminophen, and chlorzoxazone, a muscle relaxant.

By December 16, 1975, the police had no suspects and no leads. They picked up Grimm at his place of work at 4:45 p.m. after he completed a nine-hour shift. They took him to the police station and began interrogating him. Records showed that C.H.’s father had mentioned to police that he had had two arguments with Grimm. One involved Grimm running over children’s toys with a lawn mower and the other was over C.H. playing outside in his underwear. C.H.’s mother had told police that Grimm was “odd in his actions.”

Police later said that only after questioning Grimm without a break until 9:10 p.m. did they advise him of his Miranda warnings. During the night, he was given two polygraph examinations. Grimm would later say that the detectives threatened him with the death penalty. Although Grimm didn’t know it, the death penalty was an empty threat since it did not apply to the crimes he was suspected of committing.

At 11 p.m., police said Grimm told them “what happened.”

The officers took Grimm out of the building to take them on the route he took on the day C.H. disappeared, then returned to the station. At 2:20 a.m., police turned on a tape recorder, and Grimm gave a statement.

He said that he left the apartment building to get food for the weekend from his mother. When he returned, he saw C.H. outside. Grimm said he went inside and turned on a football game on television. He said he blacked out during the second period, left the house, and went to the laundry building in the apartment complex. There, he saw C.H., who asked if Grimm would take him to a convenience store for a soda.

Grimm said that he drove the boy to a parking lot and “forced sexual assault on him.” Asked by a detective what he meant, Grimm could not give specifics. Finally, a detective suggested, “Did you make him place your privates in his mouth, is this how it happened?”

“Yes,” Grimm replied. He said that after he ejaculated, the boy began “choking and coughing and then looked like he passed out right there in the seat.”

Grimm said he wrapped the boy in his peacoat and drove him to the river where he tossed the boy into the water while unfurling the coat. He said he tore his shoe when he slipped at the river while tossing the boy over the bank. He then drove home and later participated in the search for C.H.

On December 17, 1975, Grimm was arrested on charges of first-degree murder, sodomy, and abduction with intent to defile.

The police executed a series of search warrants for Grimm’s home and his car. Grimm’s shoes and a peacoat were collected from his home. From his car, police recovered two towels and several hairs. The physical evidence was sent to the Virginia Division of Forensic Science (DFS) where it was analyzed by forensic analyst Mary Jane Burton.

On March 10, 1975, Grimm pled guilty to the charges in Richmond City Circuit Court. Judge Frank A.S. Wright scheduled an evidentiary hearing for March 15 before he would agree to the conviction.

At the hearing, a detective recounted how Grimm had confessed. In addition, the prosecution presented Burton’s report of her analysis of the hairs. She said that three hairs found on the floor of Grimm’s car as well as a hair found on a child’s sock in the car were “consistent” with C.H.’s hair. She said the hairs were not Grimm’s. Burton said that four hairs found on the peacoat were “consistent” with C.H.’s hair. The hairs were not Grimm’s, she said.

Burton said she had tested swabs of the pharynx, epiglottis, esophagus, nasal passage, and oral cavity taken during the autopsy and a towel recovered from Grimm’s car. Burton’s serology report was dated March 12, 1975, two days after Grimm entered his guilty plea and three days before the hearing. Her serology testing on the swabs excluded Grimm–she found blood type O, and he had type A. This fact was not pointed out by the defense. Burton said that a stain on one of the towels from Grimm’s car indicated the presence of seminal fluid.

Fierro, the medical examiner, testified to her autopsy results and the presence of spermatozoa and a “thick white gelatinate material” in C.H.’s mouth.

The prosecution contended that the confession was bolstered by other evidence. Richmond City Commonwealth attorney Aubrey Davis noted that the police had created a plaster cast of the boy’s head and compared it with a plaster cast of the indentation of the river where the body was found. The plaster cast of the boy’s head was “relatively the same size” as the plaster cast of the indentation of “where the body apparently hit,” Aubrey said.

Judge Wright did not put much stock in that evidence however. When Davis attempted to admit the evidence into the record, Judge Wright declared, “What is the purpose of these, Mr. Davis?”

Davis contended this provided “slight corroboration” of the accuracy of the confession.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge Wright entered a finding of guilty on the three charges. In May 1976, Grimm was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

In March 1989, Grimm filed a petition for DNA testing, which had first been used in an American courtroom in 1987 by prosecutors. On January 4, 1989, Virginia Governor Gerald Bailes had pardoned David Vasquez of a 1984 rape in Arlington, Virginia. DNA testing had linked Timothy Spencer to a series of rapes, and although the DNA in the Vasquez case was insufficient to test, police believed Spencer had committed the crime for which Vasquez had pled guilty.

Grimm’s request for DNA testing, which he made acting as his own lawyer, was denied.

Two years later, in 2001, Grimm, now represented by a lawyer, sought testing again. In December 2003, Grimm filed a petition for a writ of actual innocence based on results of that testing which excluded him as the source of the biological evidence found in C.H.’s throat and excluded C.H. as the source of the hairs found on the peacoat. The Supreme Court of Virginia denied the petition in May 2004, saying it was filed too late, and that not only had Grimm confessed, but police had confirmed “much of the detailed descriptions” in the confession.

In February 2012, Grimm filed another petition for a writ of actual innocence based on DNA testing of the hairs that excluded C.H. and on the swabs and smears from C.H.’s mouth, throat, and nose that excluded Grimm. That prosecution opposed, and the petition was dismissed. The Virginia Supreme Court noted Grimm’s guilty plea and confession and found that “the forensic reports were inconclusive as to two of the hairs that were found and no DNA profile could be obtained from some of the pharynx, esophagus and oral swabs ‘due to an insufficient amount of DNA.’”

In August 2017, Grimm petitioned Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe for a pardon, but no action was taken on the request. On April 3, 2020, Grimm was released on parole. He was forced to register as a sex offender and was required to wear an ankle bracelet.

In October 2021, after the Virginia General Assembly authorized DNA testing at private laboratories, Grimm filed a post-conviction motion to have the evidence retested by Mitotyping Technologies. The motion was granted. In 2012, DFS had tested the hairs and excluded C.H. from all but two hairs, saying their tests on those two were inconclusive. Mitotyping Technologies testing, conducted in 2023, excluded C.H. as the source of the two hairs from the car, one hair from the sock found in the car, and three hairs from the pea coat as well as the two hairs which DFS had called inconclusive. Seven of the hairs had different DNA profiles, indicating that they had been shed by seven different people. By this time, not only had Grimm been excluded as the source of any biological material on the slides from C.H., but an analysis showed there was no sperm in the boy’s throat at all. Further, the towel that Burton said appeared to contain semen was negative for the presence of seminal fluid.

In February, a podcast called “Admissible” aired a 12-part series on the impact of forensic evidence in wrongful convictions. The series examined the work of Burton, who had died in 1999. Burton had received some acclaim for saving physical evidence in her files. Beginning with the exoneration of Marvin Anderson in 2002, based on DNA testing of evidence in his case that Burton had preserved, a total of 12 men had been exonerated as a result of testing of evidence in Burton’s files. The podcast revealed that a whistleblower had come forward to say that Burton had falsified results. The podcast reported that an expert had said that Burton’s serology work had excluded the real perpetrator of a crime. As a result of the podcast’s reporting, the Virginia Crime Commission launched a review of about 4,800 of Burton’s cases.

In April 2023, Grimm’s legal team, including Susan Friedman and Timothy Gumkowski of the Innocence Project and lawyers from the law firm of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, filed a petition for a writ of actual innocence. The petition cited the test results as well as reports from Professor Richard Leo, an expert on false confessions, and Dr. Jeffrey Brent, a toxicology expert. Leo concluded that there were numerous factors present that indicated Grimm’s confession was false, including that his version of events did not comport with the evidence, and it appeared that police had fed him details when Grimm was unable to provide them himself.

Grimm had confessed to tossing the body into the river. The petition noted that it was inconceivable that, based on the location where Grimm said he tossed the body, he could have hurled the boy 30 to 40 feet to reach the river. The petition said it was “almost impossible” for the body to have landed in the manner in which It was found.

Dr. Brent reported that based on his analysis of the toxicology report, C.H. had ingested the alcohol, chlorzoxazone, and acetaminophen at least 90 to 150 minutes prior to his death. This made it impossible for Grimm to have been involved since police records showed he was in his apartment within 75 minutes after the boy was last seen.

The petition said it was impossible to believe that the boy could have been last seen at 1:30 p.m., and that Grimm managed to abduct him, sodomize him, and toss him in the river miles away and be back in his apartment at 2:45 p.m. when police came looking for C.H.’s mother in response to her missing person report.

In a response to the petition, the Virginia Attorney General’s Office agreed that Grimm’s convictions should be vacated and the case dismissed. The response noted that Grimm’s shoes had been sent to the lab along with soil and leaves from the river. The report came back saying that there was no soil or anything on the shoes from the river. This was not disclosed to the defense at the time Grimm pled guilty.

Grimm’s confession included that he tore his shoe while tossing the body into the river. Not only had a co-worker said that he had torn the shoe at work, but the fact that he had a torn shoe did not mean his confession was true, the petition said. Moreover, Grimm’s mother said the peacoat was at her home at the time of the crime.

The response noted that plaster case evidence was meaningless. “Because nobody witnessed any part of the things Grimm confessed to, the police didn’t know for certain what caused the indentation, instead referring to a photo as ‘an indentation here of where the body apparently hit.’ Neither did the cast of C.H.’s head match the cast of the indentation with any scientific veracity: the two were merely ‘relatively’ the same,” the response said. “The riverbank indentation does not necessarily correspond to any part of Grimm’s confession, and no witness can confirm how the indentation occurred. It therefore does not provide ‘slight corroboration’ to Grimm’s confession.

“Grimm’s scientific evidence largely debunks his confession,” the response said. “The remaining items of potentially corroborative evidence the Commonwealth used in 1976 either do not form part of the corpus delicti of any of Grimm’s alleged crimes, or they have alternate, innocent explanations in light of other record evidence.”

“If DNA analysis existed when C.H.’s body was discovered with an apparent glob of semen in his throat, DNA testing would have been immediately ordered and rushed,” the response said. “That testing would have quickly excluded Grimm, and Grimm never would never have had an opportunity to falsely confess to killing C.H.”

“The record no longer supports the Commonwealth’s former ‘ejaculation and asphyxiation’ theory,” the response said. “The Commonwealth cannot represent that C.H. died from choking on semen.”

“Given the complete dismantling of its 1976 theories, and the resulting absence of any consistent explanation for C.H.’s death, the Commonwealth is uncertain whether it could truthfully represent to the Court that C.H.’s death was a homicide,” the response said.

The response noted that after discounting the confession, the remaining items of evidence were “just as consistent with non-commission of the offense as...with its commission. No material evidence remains to corroborate Grimm’s confession, and as such, the Court should not consider the confession as part of the totality of the evidence here.”

On June 18, 2024, the Virginia Court of Appeals granted the writ, and ruled that Grimm was innocent. “Based on careful review of the record and newly discovered biological and non-biological evidence, this Court grants Grimm’s petition and issues a writ of actual innocence vacating the challenged convictions,” the court declared.

– Maurice Possley

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 7/5/2024
Last Updated: 7/5/2024
State:Virginia
County:Richmond City
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Child Sex Abuse, Kidnapping
Reported Crime Date:1975
Convicted:1976
Exonerated:2024
Sentence:Life
Race/Ethnicity:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes