NEW ORLEANS — A black man wrongfully convicted as a teenager of a rape in New Orleans more than 36 years ago was released on Thursday after a judge overturned his conviction.
Sullivan Walter, now 53, used a tissue to wipe away tears as a state district judge formally overturned his conviction for rape by home invasion. Judge Darryl Derbigny expressed his anger that the blood and semen evidence that could have exonerated him never reached the jury.
“To say it was inadmissible is an understatement,” Derbigny told Walter.
After appearing in court in New Orleans, Walter was taken to Elayn Hunt Correctional Facility in St. Gabriel, where he was officially released.
District Attorney Jason Williams’ office joined defense attorneys working with Innocence Project New Orleans, a criminal justice advocacy group, to have the conviction overturned.
Walter was 17 when he was arrested in connection with the New Orleans rape. The rapist entered the home of the victim, identified in the file as LS, in May 1986, held a knife to her throat and threatened to injure her 8-year-old son, who had been sleeping during the incident.
Emily Maw, an attorney in Williams’ office, described the problems with the case in court, noting that there was reason to believe the victim, the only witness, had mistakenly identified Walter.
“There were red flags that the eyewitness testimony may well have been unreliable,” Maw told Derbigny.
These “red flags” had been set out in a joint filing by the defense and prosecutors ahead of Thursday’s hearing.
“In this case, LS was being asked to do an interracial identification of a person who, at all times she could observe, was either masked, in an unlit room at night, and/or threatening not to to look at it. Additionally, LS did not see a series of photos containing Mr. Walter until more than six weeks after the crime,” the motion reads.
More importantly, no evidence was presented on characteristics of Walter’s blood that did not match the semen taken from the victim after the rape.
The filing also recounts years of mistakes made by Walter’s previous attorneys, including failing to point out conflicting statements from a police officer who worked on the case and missteps during the appeals process regarding the blood and semen evidence.
When he was cleared on Thursday, Walter was serving a total sentence of 39 years – four for a burglary charge unrelated to the rape case and 35 years for multiple charges in the rape case.
Lawyers said the rape victim is now dead. Maw told the court that authorities contacted the victim’s son, who was not present, and expressed regret on his mother’s behalf about the wrongful conviction.
Innocence Project New Orleans legal director Richard Davis said Walter’s race was a factor in the wrongful conviction.
“The lawyers and law enforcement involved acted as if they thought they could do whatever they wanted to a black teenager from a poor family and would never be investigated or held accountable,” Davis said in a statement. a written statement. “It’s not just about individuals and their choices, but the systems that enabled them.”