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Phillip Leon Thurman

20 Years in Prison: Innocent

Cause: Eyewitness Misidentification
Real Perpetrator Found: Yes
State: Virginia
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On December 22, 2005, Virginia Governor Mark Warner granted a full pardon to Phillip Leon Thurman, a Virginia man who served nearly 20 years in prison for a 1984 rape, abduction and assault he did not commit.

Blood typing of biological evidence was used to convict Thurman in 1985. A DNA test of this evidence, ordered by Gov. Warner in 2004, led to Thurman’s exoneration.

The Crime
In the early morning of Dec. 30, 1984, a 37-year-old woman was dragged from an Alexandria, Virginia, bus stop by an unknown African-American man. The man beat and raped the victim and attempted to strangle her.

The Investigation
Thurman was apprehended by police shortly after the crime. The victim described her attacker as a tall, thin, African-American man wearing a green jacket. Thurman, who matched that description, was seen by police near the crime scene. He said he was walking home after a night spent with friends and family.

The Trial
At his jury trial in 1985, the victim and another witness identified Thurman as the perpetrator of this crime.

Mary Jane Burton, an analyst at the Virginia state crime lab, testified that biological evidence found on the victim’s underwear matched Thurman’s blood type – Type B, which is shared by 20 percent of African-American men.

While in prison, Thurman wrote letters proclaiming his innocence to dozens of lawyers, judges and organizations. He served 20 years of his 31-year sentence in prison and was released on parole, at age 50, on November 17, 2004. As required by law, he registered as a sex offender in the Virginia database as soon as he arrived home.

The DNA testing that led to Thurman's exoneration was sparked by developments in other Virginia cases.

In 2001, attorneys at the Innocence Project obtained DNA testing in the case of Virginia inmate Marvin Anderson, who was convicted of rape in 1982. Evidence from Anderson’s case, thought to have been lost, had been located in the notebook of Mary Jane Burton, who performed conventional serology testing in Anderson’s case. The DNA test proved that Anderson could not have committed the rape for which he was convicted. In 2003 and 2004, evidence saved by Burton was instrumental in proving the innocence of Virginia inmates Julius Earl Ruffin and Arthur Lee Whitfield.

Had Burton followed lab policy and returned the partially used swabs to the rape kit, all evidence in these cases may have been forever lost. After the exonerations of Anderson, Ruffin and Whitfield, the Innocence Project and others pushed for a review of cases in Burton’s file.

In 2004, Gov. Warner ordered that a random 10 percent of cases in Burton’s file be tested. This audit led to DNA tests in Thurman’s case and the case of Willie Davidson, who was convicted of rape and robbery in 1981.

Testing proved that Thurman could not have left the stain on the victim’s underwear, which was used as evidence against him at trial. Virginia officials have announced that the DNA profile found on that stain matches another person in the state’s DNA database. Police and prosecutors are further investigating the case.

On December 14, 2005, Gov. Warner announced that DNA testing on evidence from Burton's files had exonerated two Virginia inmates, later identified as Thurman and Willie Davidson. On December 22, 2005, Gov. Warner granted full pardons to both men.

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The Causes

  • Eyewitness Misidentification
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The Facts

Incident Date: 12/30/84
Jurisdiction: VA
Charge: Rape, Abduction, Assault
Conviction: Rape, Abduction, Assault
Conviction Date: 1/1/85
Exoneration Date: 12/22/05
Sentence: 31 years
Served: 20 years
Real Perpetrator Found: Yes
Compensation: Private Bill
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