The Innocence Project New Orleans has helped another Black man get out of jail for a rape he did not commit. The organization, committed to providing legal services to wrongfully convicted persons, assisted in getting a Louisiana man exonerated after he spent four decades in prison for a crime he was convicted of when he was a teen.
On Thursday, Aug. 25, Sullivan Walter, 53, was released from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, LA. He had already served “36 years and two months … for a rape he did not commit,” according to an IPNO press release, making his case the “longest known wrongful incarceration of a juvenile in Louisiana history and the fifth longest in U.S. history.”
Walter spent more than two-thirds of his life in prison for a crime he did not commit and that the prosecution could not legally prove without withholding evidence.
Judge Darryl Derbigny vacated the case, and noted the fact that lawyers withheld some vital evidence that could have led to a not guilty verdict in Walter’s case, as “unconscionable.”
Despite being 17 years old when police arrested him for the sexual assault, he “was prosecuted as an adult.” He was sentenced to 39 years in prison.
The lawyers wrote, “Mr. Walter was inadvertently misidentified as the perpetrator of a home invasion and rape that occurred in May 1986. The rape occurred late at night in an unlit room with the perpetrator wearing a hat and a face covering.”
CNN reports the woman was only identified as “L.S.’ in court documents and was taking a shower when she saw a man wearing a backward baseball cap and covering the bottom of his face with a washcloth come into her home. Once he encountered her, she alleges the man took a shirt and put it over her face, before taking her to an “empty unlit bedroom” and raping her at knife point.
“The victim identified Mr. Walter as the rapist six weeks after the crime,” the press release revealed.
She saw him from photos given to her by police, who had recently arrested him on simple burglary. L.S. saw Walter wearing a blue baseball cap and had the same complexion as the man she remembered rapping her.
Walter maintains that he never touched the woman.
“Serological testing conducted in the 1980s on seminal fluids recovered from the victim showed that Mr. Walter was not the perpetrator, but the jury that convicted Mr. Walter did not learn of this and it has never before been fully presented to a court.”
Walter tried to appeal multiple times, but because he had no legal assistance between 1997 and October 2021, his petitions fell flat. However, after linking with IPNO, things swiftly picked up with them discovering outrageous evidence that eventually led to his freedom.
Attorneys were able to discover “the exculpatory result of the serological testing” during the case, noting a failure on Walter’s trial lawyer’s part to effectively “elicit this evidence from relevant witnesses,” or call for a new trial because any analyst hired by the police department misrepresented the results of seminal fluid regarding the rape – and involving the then-teen.
IPNO stated Walter was compromised from the start of his case, one that lasted only one day, including jury selection and deliberation that lasted 3 ½ hours because his lawyer had a “troubled history of disciplinary findings.”
The organization said it worked with an expert, regarded highly by both the defense and prosecution, to get a new analysis of the serological evidence. Like the first finding that was suppressed, the recent research also eliminated Mr. Walter as the source of the semen recovered from the victim’s body immediately following the rape.
Once the information was submitted and reviewed by the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office Civil Rights Division (CRD), the agency moved to vacate Walter’s conviction.
When addressing L.S.’s testimony, Emily Maw, a lawyer with the D.A.’s office said, “There were some red flags that the eyewitness testimony could well have been unreliable.”
The agency said in its motion to vacate because she “was being asked to make a cross-racial identification of someone who at all the times that she could observe him was either masked, in an unlit room at night, and/or threatening her not to look at him.”
“Under no circumstances should the District Attorney’s agreement, in this case, be taken to infer that the victim was dishonest in her identification nor minimize her and her family’s very real trauma from her assault. Rather, it should be recognized that the tragedy of her assault is, in fact, magnified by the fact the true perpetrator was not apprehended and may have victimized others,” it further stated.
“What is unusual about this case is how little effort was made to hide the injustice being done to Mr. Walter,” Richard Davis, the IPNO Legal Director and Walter’s new attorney said. “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.”
The victim in the case has since transitioned, however, her family was notified of what the new evidence revealed and the government’s decision to vacate Walter’s conviction.
District Attorney Jason Williams said in a statement, “The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office is committed to confronting and addressing past harm inflicted by the criminal legal system as part of its mission to create a safer community for all of our citizens.”
Adding, “Reckoning with the sins of the past or past harm must include an unbiased and open-minded review of cases in which evidence that was not heard by the jury suggests that a person who was convicted was not the person who committed the crime.”
“Sullivan Walter was convicted by a prior administration of this office despite the fact the serology testing by state law enforcement at the time showed he could not have been the person who committed the rape he was convicted of in 1986. After Mr. Walter’s trial, a state official -in the face of a serology exclusion indicating the wrong man had been prosecuted -changed his prior sworn testimony to ensure the 17-year-old Mr. Walter remained behind bars,” Williams said.
“No such behavior would ever be tolerated in my administration, and we could not stand by or defend a conviction obtained or maintained with such methods,” the D.A. continued. “Mr. Walter suffered a terrible injustice and, though this office rectified it promptly when it was brought to our attention, it is a tragedy that it took the legal system so long to do so. We are working every day to prevent such avoidable tragedies from happening again.”
Walter, the 42nd innocent person freed by the IPNO, said after being released, “I can finally breathe. I could hardly breathe for 36 years but now that I’m free, I’m ready to live my life.”