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Sullivan Walter, now 53, was wrongfully convicted as a teenager for a New Orleans rape more than 36 years ago and has been ordered freed Thursday after a judge threw out his prior conviction.
According to CBS News, he used a handkerchief to wipe away tears as a state district judge formally vacated his conviction for a home-invasion rape. Judge Darryl Derbigny expressed anger that blood and semen evidence that could have cleared him never made it to to the jury.
“To say this was unconscionable is an understatement,” Derbigny told Walter.
After appearing in court in New Orleans, Walter was driven to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, where he was officially released.
“The Penitentiary’s packed and it’s filled with Blacks.” – Tupac Shakur
According to the Innocence Project, while it may be difficult to determine an exact number, studies estimate that between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent (for context, if just 1% of all prisoners are innocent, that would mean that more than 20,000 innocent people are in prison).
According to NOLA, after a one-day trial, a jury convicted Walter of forcible rape, aggravated burglary and two counts of aggravated crime against nature. For those crimes, and the burglary of which he was also convicted, Walter was sentenced to 39 years in prison.
On May 9, 1986, a man raped a woman inside her Lower Garden District home as he held a knife to her throat, threatening to hurt her 8-year-old son if she refused to cooperate.
Though the perpetrator had partially covered his face and the rape was committed mostly in the dark, the woman told police she could identify him. After Walter was arrested for an unrelated burglary, his photo was added to an array presented to the woman, six weeks after the rape. She picked Walter’s picture from the group.
During Walter’s trial, no evidence was presented on whether Walter was a non-secretor. And there was no evidence linking him to the crime, except for the woman’s identification of his photo.
He added: “I felt like I was going up against a giant. There was nothing I could do.”
On Thursday night, however, Walter said he wanted to look ahead. He spoke of wanting to help others who had been wrongfully convicted, and of visiting Washington D.C., to see the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial.
Innocent men and women sit in prisons across the US every day
Barry Scheck, who co-founded the national Innocence Project in New York, said he hoped the partnership would serve as a model for the rest of the country. Scheck told Witness LA it “will not only impact our ability to uncover cases where faulty forensics were responsible for wrongly convicting people in the past, it will help improve our ability to accurately assess and scrutinize the reliability of forensic evidence used in courtrooms today.”
With a founding donation of $1 million from Wilson, a team of post-conviction attorneys and wrongfully convicted individuals has launched the Los Angeles Innocence Project (LAIP) at Cal State LA.
The new program is unique in that it is the first in a network of more than 70 innocence projects to be partnering with an academic forensic science program — in this case, the California Forensic Science Institute and School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics at Cal State LA.
“I’m just ready to live,” Walter said Thursday evening, after he was released from prison, according to NOLA.com. “I just want to live an honest, free life.”