“I’ve been waiting for so long,” Whitfield said Tuesday in his attorney’s office. “Last Friday was 23 years exactly since this all began. … I did a lot of praying. I didn’t lose hope.”
Whitfield always had maintained his innocence, but a jury sentenced him to 45 years in prison for one of the rapes, based in part on the victims’ identification of him. Whitfield pleaded guilty to the second rape charge in exchange for an 18-year sentence and the hope he would live to see his family again .
No seat was available Monday when he boarded the bus in Lawrenceville, where the prison is. So Whitfield stood for more than an hour, until the bus reached Richmond.
Earlier that day, Commonwealth’s Attorney John R. Doyle III had asked the state Parole Board for Whitfield’s immediate release after confirming the DNA test results. Michael F. Fasanaro Jr., Whitfield’s attorney, said parole was the quickest way to get Whitfield out of prison.
Fasanaro said he soon will file papers asking that Whitfield be declared innocent and his record cleared.
Compensation for the years he lost in prison has not yet entered his mind, Whitfield said. A state law passed this year gives wrongfully imprisoned people the right to seek compensation; Whitfield could also file a lawsuit.
The process that led to Whitfield’s release began last fall, when a fellow inmate encouraged him to ask for DNA testing of evidence from his jury trial. That was possible because in 2001, the General Assembly changed a state law that restricted inmates’ ability to submit DNA evidence to prove their innocence.
Whitfield acted as his own attorney to file the petition. Fasanaro was later appointed. The evidence that exonerated Whitfield came from the files of Mary Jane Burton, a state lab analyst whose habit of saving biological samples already has cleared at least two other men of rape charges. The biological evidence that exonerated Whitfield points to another man as the perpetrator. That man’s identity has not been released, but Doyle said Monday that the suspect is serving life in prison for a 1984 rape conviction.
Gordon Zedd, the attorney for Julius Earl Ruffin, one of the other men cleared, said Tuesday that he plans to petition the state under the Freedom of Information Act to open all Burton’s files to find the names of others whose biological evidence she saved.
Doyle said he has no plans to ask for such an investigation of Burton’s files, nor to ask the Norfolk Police Department to re-examine rape cases from that time period. Unsolved cases are still open, he said, and sexual assault investigators can still submit evidence in those cases.
Whitfield knew something was up when deputies from Norfolk came to the prison to take additional DNA samples from him last week. But he still couldn’t believe it when told he would be set free.
“I thought it was just a joke,” he said. Whitfield said he didn’t know what to do with himself as he waited at the bus station in Lawrenceville.
“It’s been a long time since I was out on my own,” he said.
He was wearing the same blue polo shirt, khaki pants and white sneakers the prison issued to him for his ride home. They are all the clothes he has. He was 27 when he was imprisoned; he is now 49. His hair has grayed, but he still wears the same thin beard he had more than 20 years ago. He spoke quietly and calmly, surrounded by his mother, sister, niece and grand-niece as well as his attorney.
His niece, LaVon Brown, met him at the bus station in Norfolk. She was about 5 when Whitfield went to prison and 12 the last time she saw him. Now 28, she had no trouble recognizing him.
“I never forgot his face,” Brown said. “All I could do was smile. I just gave him the biggest hug I could give.”
Whitfield remembered taking her to the bus stop to go to kindergarten.
“I didn’t recognize her at first, but she gave herself away by the smile,” he said.
Once home, Whitfield stayed up until 5 a.m. talking to his mother, Louise. He slept for an hour before getting up again.
His father is in the hospital and does not yet know that his son has been freed.
They have not yet had a family meal together, Whitfield said. He did not feel comfortable asking for something special.
“My family became strangers to me, in a way,” Whitfield said.
He had a girlfriend back then, but the relationship has long since fallen apart. Whitfield’s family testified for him during the trial. The night of the rapes, he said, he was with his family at a next-door neighbor’s birthday party.
“I thought it would be enough to clear me at the time,” he said. “But it wasn’t.”
He worked to avoid bitterness during the long years he spent in prison.
“If you’re put in that position, you have to make the best of it, do things to keep your mind off what really has happened,” he said.
Whitfield got his general equivalency diploma while in prison and took vocational classes in commercial cleaning and brick masonry. He began a computer programming class, but his release kept him from finishing it.
Whitfield had little to say to the investigator who helped convict him, or to the two women who at trial said they were sure he was the man who had raped them.
“It would be nice for them to say they made a mistake,” he said. “It takes a big person to say they made a mistake.”
Staff writer Tim McGlone contributed to this report.
Reach Michelle Washington at 446-2287 or michelle.washington @pilotonline.com.