Man wrongfully convicted of rape at 17 exonerated after 36 years

Francis Akhalbey August 29, 2022
Sullivan Walter was convicted of rape when he was a teenager -- Photo Credit: Innocence Project New Orleans

A New Orleans man, who was sentenced to prison 36 years ago for raping a woman during a home invasion, was on Thursday exonerated after a judge dismissed his conviction. 

According to The Associated Press, 53-year-old Sullivan Walter could have been cleared of the rape if blood and semen evidence was presented to the jury during his trial. “To say this was unconscionable is an understatement,” Judge Darryl Derbigny said in reference to the jury not being made aware of the aforementioned evidence.

Innocence Project New Orleans and District Attorney Jason Williams worked to have the Black man’s conviction vacated. 

Authorities arrested and charged Walter with rape when he was 17. The suspect who raped the victim allegedly entered her home in May 1986. The rapist allegedly put on a knife on the victim’s throat and threatened to attack her then 8-year-old son. 

The victim, identified as L.S., was the only witness in the case. Emily Maw, an attorney with Williams’ office, told the court that there was evidence to likely show the victim mistakenly identified Walter. 

“There were some red flags that the eyewitness testimony could well have been unreliable,” Maw told Derbigny.

“In this case, L.S. 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. In addition, L.S. was not shown a photo array containing Mr. Walter until over six weeks after the crime,” the motion stated.

The semen that was also collected from L.S. after she was raped did not match Walter’s blood characteristics. But that evidence was not presented to the jury. The filing also stated that Walter’s former attorneys did not highlight contradicting statements that were made by a police officer investigating the rape. There were also issues with the blood and semen evidence when the Black man appealed his conviction. 

The rape victim has since died. Maw told the court that authorities notified her son about the irregularities in the case. She said he expressed remorse on his mother’s behalf for Walter’s wrongful conviction, The Associated Press reported.

Innocence Project New Orleans Legal Director Richard Davis said Walter’s race was part of the reasons for his wrongful conviction. 

“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,” Davis said in a statement. “This is not just about individuals and their choices, but the systems that let them happen.”

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: August 30, 2022


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