Prisoner Convicted at 17 Exonerated 36 Years Later

Sullivan Walter freed after judge vacates conviction for New Orleans rape
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 29, 2022 1:36 PM CDT
Prisoner Convicted at 17 Exonerated 36 Years Later
Sullivan Walter, 53, left, holds a shirt near Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, La., with, left to right, his brothers Corner Walter, Jr. and Byron Walter, Sr., and Innocence Project New Orleans legal director Richard Davis, just after his release on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2022.   (Travis Spradling/The Advocate via AP)

A Black man wrongfully convicted as a teenager for a New Orleans rape more than 36 years ago was ordered freed after a judge threw out his conviction. Sullivan Walter, now 53, used a handkerchief to wipe away tears as a state district judge formally vacated his conviction for a home-invasion rape Thursday. Judge Darryl Derbigny expressed anger that blood and semen evidence that could have cleared him never made it to to the jury, the AP reports. "To say this was unconscionable is an understatement," Derbigny told Walter. After appearing in court in New Orleans, Walter was driven to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, where he was officially released.

District Attorney Jason Williams' office joined with defense attorneys working with Innocence Project New Orleans, a criminal justice advocacy group, to have the conviction vacated. Walter was 17 when he was arrested in connection with the New Orleans rape. The rapist had entered the home of the victim, identified in the record as L.S., in May 1986, held a knife to her throat and threatened to harm her 8-year-old son, who slept through the incident. Emily Maw, an attorney with Williams’ office, outlined the problems in the case in court, noting there were reasons to believe the victim, the only witness, had mistakenly identified Walter.

"There were some red flags that the eyewitness testimony could well have been unreliable," Maw told Derbigny. Those "red flags" were spelled out in a joint filing by the defense and prosecutors. "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 said. More significantly, no evidence was presented about Walter's blood characteristics that did not match the semen collected from the victim after the rape.

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Attorneys said the victim in the rape is now deceased. Maw said in court that authorities had reached out to the victim's son, who was not present, and that he had expressed regret on behalf of his mother about the wrongful conviction. Innocence Project New Orleans Legal Director Richard Davis said Walter's race was a factor in the 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."

(More wrongful conviction stories.)

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