WINSTON-SALEM — While Joseph Abbitt grew older in prison, forensic science grew more sophisticated, enough to prove the truth he'd been telling since 1991.
Abbitt walked out of jail Wednesday, 14 years after a jury found that he raped two teenage sisters in the early morning darkness as they dressed for school. He swore his innocence from the day police found him, which, at the time, sounded like hot air from a man who had seen plenty of trouble on the streets of Winston-Salem.
On Wednesday, new DNA tests on long-kept evidence proved that an unidentified man had violated the girls.
"We're here today not because of any wrongdoing by any one person," David Hall, a Forsyth County assistant district attorney, told the judge. "We're here because of the inexact science long ago. Science has marched on over the years."
Abbitt is the seventh man in North Carolina exonerated by DNA evidence years after being sentenced. Nationally, he joins 241 men exonerated by more sophisticated testing of DNA; three quarters of them, like Abbitt, had been wrongly identified by witnesses. An untold number of others never had the chance to prove their innocence because evidence from the crime was destroyed long before the state passed laws requiring that the pieces be kept forever.
As these things go, Abbitt, 49, was lucky. He was convicted in Forsyth County, where the exoneration of another man had weighed on the conscience of the district attorney.
Darryl Hunt was freed in 2003 after serving 18 years for the rape and murder of a Winston-Salem woman. His innocence was a sucker punch for Forsyth County District Attorney Tom Keith.
"We did not want another Darryl Hunt case," Keith said. "I couldn't take it."
Keith wanted to sleep through the night not wondering whether his office had banished other innocent men to prison. In 2005, his office compiled a list of every suspect from Forsyth County in prison -- 2,247 total. Keith mailed each a letter, advising the inmates that if they thought a new DNA test would help prove a claim of innocence, he'd make the test happen.
Only 150 inmates took him up on the offer. Of those, 80 were reviewed by the local bar association and students at Wake Forest University Law School, who looked for cases that had evidence that could be tested. Only Abbitt's case resulted in exoneration.
Abbitt appealed directly to the N.C. Center for Actual Innocence, a nonprofit group dedicated to helping prisoners who believe they were wrongly convicted. In 2008, Christine Mumma, the center's director, solicited the help of Keith and the Winston-Salem police department to look for any shred of evidence remaining in Abbitt's case.
In one of the department's six warehouses, Winston-Salem Capt. David Clayton hit pay dirt: the girls' two rape kit exams, undisturbed since the day the state lab sent them back with a report saying it couldn't get a positive read. Clayton immediately drove them to a state lab for more testing. The kits were eventually sent to a private lab for more sophisticated work.
A logical suspect
In 1995, Abbitt's conviction made sense. He'd been in trouble with the law before; he had even been charged in another sex crime years before. The girls, 15 and 13 at the time of the crime, knew him, and said, with certainty, that he was the man who snuck into their house and raped them at knife-point. They saw paint on his shoes and pant-legs; Abbitt had been working as a painter.
Abbitt always swore his innocence. His family believed him and never thought a jury would convict him.
"We all knew he didn't do it," his brother Thurmond Abbitt said Wednesday. "It hurt to watch that fall upon him."
A hulking man in a beige dress shirt and glasses, Joseph Abbitt wept as a judge granted his freedom. Abbitt hung his head and shook with sobs; Mumma rubbed his arm.
The judge offered an apology. Abbitt nodded.
When Abbitt finally spoke, he did not rant against the system that wronged him. Instead, he focused on the girls violated by someone years before.
"I pray for those two young victims every day," Abbitt told a judge. "I hope they catch the one who did this because these two young girls are still the victims of this awful crime."
Keith plans to do that. On Wednesday, a judge signed an order allowing $5,000 to pay for more DNA tests at a private lab, where they hope to decipher the signature of the real rapist.
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