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Virginia Gov. pardons 2 cleared by DNA tests

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) granted full and absolute pardons to two men after DNA tests exonerated them of the crimes they were imprisoned for decades ago.
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Phillip L. Thurman says he's cried three times in the past 20 years.

The first came on a steamy June day in 1985 when a jury stood up and said he dragged a young woman from an Alexandria bus stop, beat her, tried to strangle her and raped her. That night, alone in his cell in the city jail, his sobs were heavy and unbroken.

The second time he wept was in 1992. His mother died while he was incarcerated, and the state of Virginia allowed him to attend her funeral shackled and with armed guards at his side. He cried for his mother and from embarrassment and shame.

The last time he sobbed was on a chilly night in October, just 11 months after he'd been released from prison on parole. A smiling Alexandria police detective told him what he already knew and had been trying to tell everyone for two decades: "You're innocent," the detective said. That rainy night, he cried tears of joy.

This undated photo, provided by the Virginia Department of Corrections, show Phillip L. Thurman, one of two men pardoned Thursda, Dec. 22, 2005. Thurman and Willie Neville Davidson were both wrongfully convicted of sexual assault and cleared by a lab review of DNA evidence that had been saved by a forensic scientist. (AP Photo/Va. Dept., of Correction)VA DEPT OF CORRECTIONS

"God is good," Thurman said this week, touching a gold cross that hung on a chain around his neck. "God is real good. I'm just so grateful now."

Yesterday, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) granted a full and absolute pardon to Thurman. Last week, the governor announced that newly tested DNA from the Alexandria rape and another one in Norfolk had exonerated Thurman and the defendant in Norfolk named Willie Davidson. Davidson also was pardoned yesterday.

Despite the pardon, Thurman must petition a judge to have the conviction removed from his record. Still, after 20 years, he can finally walk around without the label "rapist."

"I'm hopeful that it will help me find work," Thurman said of the pardon. "I'm looking forward to bettering myself through education and making up for lost time with my family. It's a relief, and I will move on."

Lost years
In his first interview, Thurman, now 51, recounted the two decades he spent behind bars at some of the state's most notorious prisons. He spoke without bitterness of missing the births of his grandchildren and all of his kids' birthdays. He spoke of eventually giving up hope that someone would recognize the error and set him free. Instead, he found peace with what he saw as his fate.

"I had to deal with the hand that was in front of me," he said in a steady voice not much louder than a whisper.

He wasn't always that resolute. He remembers saying over and over to himself the night he was convicted: "I am innocent. I am not a rapist." It was a refrain he would repeat in the coming years in handwritten letters to judges and lawyers and advocates for those wrongly imprisoned.

Thurman said he trusted the criminal justice system; he said he believed it wouldn't fail him. But in the end, it did, he said, and his only choice was to carry out his sentence in silence.

Still, he said he feels no anger at the way his life has unfolded.

"No," he said, shaking his head. "What I think about is all the people who have been hurt through this ordeal -- my family."

There is Diane, whom he married in June after desperately keeping up a courtship all through his prison term. Diane, for one, believed with all her heart in 1985 that Thurman -- a man she described in a letter to a judge that year as "generous" and "sincere," a caring father figure to her 4-year-old son -- was not capable of raping and assaulting a stranger.

His daughters, too, who were 9 and 6 when he was found guilty and whose childhoods he missed.

And his mother, who died knowing the truth in her heart but not seeing Warner's pardon.

Unending punishment
When he was released after serving all but 11 years of his 31-year sentence, the shame followed him from prison to his home town of Alexandria, where he was required to register as a sex offender. His mug shot remains online in the state's registry. The stigma of his conviction has made it difficult to find work, and he remains unemployed. He is studying fiber optics, though, and said he hopes to find a job soon.

"His punishment did not end the day he got out of prison," said his attorney, James C. Clark, who has begun to research the state-supported remedies and compensation that might be available. A price cannot be put on the experiences and career opportunities that Thurman lost, but Clark said he hopes legislators will support a fair way of paying back his client.

In Thurman's case, a "cold hit" linked someone else to the Alexandria crime. Police and prosecutors said they are working to bring the real criminal to trial.

At the time of the Alexandria rape, Thurman was 30 and worked as a plumber with his father. He had dreams of marrying Diane and having a family with her. He was walking a path of redemption. He had survived two prison terms for burglary and robbery and was "reformed," he wrote in a letter to Alexandria Judge Donald M. Haddock that is now part of his yellowed case file.

More importantly, he continued in that letter, he knew nothing about the rape of a woman Dec. 30, 1984, a woman who had testified in court that Thurman was her attacker.

"As for the victim herself," he wrote in the letter, "she has all my condolences as to what happened to her, but I was not the gentleman who brought that affliction upon her mind and body."

Throughout the four-day trial, Thurman said, he believed the jury would decide in his favor. After all, he had an alibi: He had been with his brother and several friends at the American Legion Club on North Fayette Street, he told the panel. After the club closed at 3:30 a.m., an hour later than usual because of the New Year's holiday weekend, the group walked across the street to Sgt's Restaurant. A while later, the friends began to go their separate ways, and Thurman offered to walk a female friend home. Her apartment was on the way to his sister's house, he testified, where he planned to sleep.

They arrived at her apartment before 6 a.m. They said goodbye, and Thurman walked away. Moments later, a police officer spotted him. He matched the description -- African American, tall, slender, wearing a green coat -- of a man who had just raped a woman.

Evidence was presented. A neighbor testified that he saw the woman being attacked by a man who looked somewhat like Thurman. And a lab analyst named Mary Jane Burton swore under oath that biological evidence on the woman's underwear was of the same blood type as Thurman's, Type A. DNA testing didn't exist then.

The jury deliberated five hours.

It took a few days before it all hit him. He saw only darkness; 20 years is a long time in a young man's life.

"I relied on the courts," he said. "Now I just had to get by one day at a time."

He never blamed the jury, he said. Every story has two sides; the jury had the difficult responsibility of deciding which one to believe. But he said he wants some good to come from his case. He said he hopes jurors across the country will take heed.

'Broader wake-up call'
S. Randolph Sengel, Alexandria commonwealth's attorney, said the recent exonerations should also serve as a "broader wake-up call" to those involved in prosecuting criminal cases. "Jurors, witnesses, everyone can't help but say now, 'I really have to be careful,' " he said.

The biological samples in the Thurman and Davidson cases were contained in the files of Burton, the lab analyst who testified at Thurman's trial. She retired in 1988 and died in 1999. For years, and for an unknown reason, she had meticulously preserved pieces of clothing smeared with blood, semen or saliva in her files, which ended up in a storage facility.

The files were rediscovered in 2001, when an inmate asserted his innocence under a new state law that for the first time granted the right to request testing of DNA evidence more than 21 days after sentencing.

Warner ordered that all of the remaining files be sorted for additional cases that might demand new testing.

While lab analysts quietly tested the yellowed swabs that contained his DNA, Thurman walked out of jail Nov. 17, 2004, and traveled home. He arrived in a different city, one with more people and more buildings. He still gets lost sometimes, he said.

His homecoming was a delicious surprise to the woman who months later finally would become his wife, whose letters over the years had sustained him. She never doubted his innocence, she said, "not ever for a single minute."

Seated together in Clark's office, the couple, both in red sweaters and slacks, held hands and hugged each other. Between them, they have nine grandchildren. The joy of Thurman's life is baby-sitting them when his daughter needs him. It happened 20 years later than he planned, but Thurman has the family he said he always wanted.