Winston Scott was 19 years old in 1975, when he was accused of raping a Fairfax County, Virginia, woman. He said he didn’t do it. But he was convicted and served about five years of a 14-year prison sentence before being paroled in 1981.
Albeit freed, he had lost the chance for the life he once dreamed of, and he still had to bear the burden of his conviction. That finally was lifted when the Supreme Court of Virginia last week affirmed what he had been saying for 43 years - that he was innocent.
“Upon reviewing the totality of the evidence . . .” the court wrote in a unanimous ruling, “. . . the Court finds that Scott has proved, by clear and convincing evidence . . . that no rational trier of fact would have found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” Key to Scott’s exoneration was new DNA testing that occurred because of an extraordinary effort in Virginia to systematically hunt for wrongfully convicted people. Scott, now 63, was the 13th innocent person to be cleared of a crime as a result of the project initiated under then-Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat.
That is a sobering reminder of the reality of wrongful convictions and of the need to build better protections into the system of law enforcement.
Scott was convicted largely on the strength of identification from a woman who was raped by a stranger in her Reston apartment on July 24, 1975.
He became a suspect when a sister of a man who knew Scott thought he resembled the police composite sketch of the attacker. Initial serology tests performed by what was then the Bureau of Forensic Science concluded that the perpetrator and Scott had different blood types, but retesting of the same sample placed him within the category of people who could have committed the crime.
The discovery of defendants wrongly convicted in other cases spurred Virginia to undertake a massive retesting of hundreds of cases in which evidence had been retained at the state forensic lab. New testing of the sample of the victim’s jeans, which had semen from the attacker, proved Scott’s innocence.
The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project took up his case, prevailing over the opposition of the state attorney general’s office.
Scott’s vindication cannot restore the years he lost, but - like other exonerations - provides the opportunity to learn from mistakes and make improvements in the system to prevent future miscarriages of justice.