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Bennett Barbour
Bennett Barbour

Incident Date: 2/7/78

Jurisdiction: VA

Charge: Rape

Conviction: Rape

Sentence: 10 years

Year of Conviction: 1978

Exoneration Date: 5/24/12

Sentence Served: 4.5 years

Real perpetrator found? Yes

Contributing Causes: Eyewitness Misidentification

Compensation? Not Yet

Bennett Barbour was convicted of rape in 1978 and spent less than five years in prison. Nearly thirty years after he was paroled, DNA tests proved his innocence and implicated another man. Barbour was cleared by DNA testing performed by the Virginia Department of Forensic Science’s post-conviction testing project.

The Crime


On February 7, 1978, a 19-year-old student at William and Mary was raped at gunpoint, alone in her fiancé’s apartment. As soon as the rapist left, the victim called the police. When investigators arrived, the victim told them that her assailant weighed 145 pounds and was 5’ 6” tall. There had been a number of other rapes in the area during this time.

The Investigation

One week after the attack, the victim was shown a photo array. The victim picked Barbour’s photo out of the lineup, and then picked him out of two live lineups (consisting of the same people in different orders). The next day, Barbour, a newly married handyman, was arrested. He weighed only 115 pounds at the time of his arrest. Furthermore, Barbour suffered from a brittle-bone disease and had a pin in his elbow at the time, making rape seem unlikely. Hair taken from the scene did not match Barbour’s, and tests performed on the semen revealed only the presence of Type A blood. The victim and her fiancé both had Type A blood, while Barbour had Type B. Nevertheless, he was charged with the crime.

The Trial

At the trial, the principle evidence against Barbour was the eyewitness testimony of the victim, who had picked him out from the lineups. However, Barbour did not match the victim’s initial description, nor did any physical evidence tie him to the crime. Barbour’s illness made it unlikely that he could commit a rape. His alibi, that he was watching television with his family and neighbors that night, was corroborated by three witnesses at trial.
  
In spite of all of this, Bennett Barbour was convicted of rape on April 14, 1978. According to the post-sentence report, the investigators from the case still had doubts about Barbour’s guilt, and were reportedly still investigating.

Post-Conviction

After spending four-and-a-half years in prison, Barbour was released on parole the first time he came up for consideration. 

In 2001, the Virginia Department of Forensic Science learned that some serologists who had performed blood-type testing on physical evidence from 1973 to 1988 kept samples of the evidence. In September 2004, then-Virginia Governor Mark Warner ordered that the DNA evidence in 31 sample cases be retested. When this cleared Phillip Leon Thurman and Willie Davidson of rapes (both have since been pardoned), Warner ordered the retesting of evidence from approximately 800 cases from 1973 to 1988 (before DNA tests were standard). The project was intended to take 18 months, but instead took more than seven years. Once the testing was completed, the Virginia Department of Forensic Science refused to release information on the cases. After denying repeated Freedom of Information Act requests from the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Virginia finally agreed to release a partial list of the DNA exclusions to a volunteer attorney, Jonathan Sheldon.  Barbour only learned that the evidence from his case still existed and that the state lab had obtained DNA results when Sheldon contacted him in early 2012.

Barbour sought the assistance of the University of Virginia School of Law’s Innocence Project, which agreed to represent him.  Investigation revealed that the state lab had provided the exonerating results to the Commonwealth’s Attorneys Office in June of 2010.  Barbour, however, was not informed of the testing for an additional 18 months when Sheldon contacted him. Virginia authorities claimed that they had not been able to locate Barbour to inform him of his innocence.  However, his correct address and phone number were publicly listed.

Indeed, the tests implicated a convicted rapist who has since been charged with the crime for which Barbour spent years in prison and on parole. 

On May 24, 2012, the Supreme Court of Virginia issued a writ of actual innocence, formally clearing Barbour of the rape. Barbour was exonerated through Virginia’s post-conviction testing project. 

Barbour died January 10th, 2013, after a long battle with bone cancer. Just two months prior to his death, he had voted in his first ever presidential election. He was 57 years old.

Bennett Barbour
Bennett Barbour

Incident Date: 2/7/78

Jurisdiction: VA

Charge: Rape

Conviction: Rape

Sentence: 10 years

Year of Conviction: 1978

Exoneration Date: 5/24/12

Sentence Served: 4.5 years

Real perpetrator found? Yes

Contributing Causes: Eyewitness Misidentification

Compensation? Not Yet