UVA Law Clinic Client Feels 'Vindicated' as Virginia Supreme Court Clears His Name

Engle, Enright, Barbour, Brown

From left, Innocence Project Clinic directors Matthew Engle and Deirdre Enright, Bennett Barbour and third-year law student Ashley Brown. The Supreme Court of Virginia granted Barbour a writ of actual innocence, in light of DNA testing results that excluded him from the rape for which he was convicted in 1978.

June 12, 2012

When the Virginia Supreme Court exonerated Bennett Barbour of a 1978 rape conviction late last month, he felt relief, yet also deep frustration that it took more than three decades to clear his name.

"I'm happy but I'm not ecstatic because I've been innocent since day one," Barbour said. "I do feel vindicated. I'm glad my name is cleared. But the damage has been done to me and to my family — it can't be taken away."

Barbour, 56, was convicted in February 1978 of the rape of a 19-year-old College of William & Mary student who incorrectly identified him as her rapist. In 2010, DNA testing of evidence from the crime scene conclusively indicated that Barbour was not the attacker, and pointed instead to a convicted rapist who is now awaiting trial in connection with the crime.

After the DNA results came to light earlier this year, the University of Virginia School of Law's Innocence Project Clinic took on Barbour's case and filed a petition for a writ of actual innocence with the Supreme Court of Virginia. The court agreed, and on May 24 granted a rare writ of actual innocence that exonerates Barbour. (More)

Barbour said he was "honored" to be represented by the Innocence Project Clinic. The clinic's law students and its directors, Deirdre Enright and Matthew Engle, restored much of the faith he lost in the criminal justice system, he said.

"I can't thank them enough. I love them. I respect them. We were strangers, but once they talked to me we became friends," he said. "And I know, totally, that there is hope through them in the justice system — They're my heroes."

Yet Barbour added that he believes substantial reforms are needed to minimize the chances of wrongful convictions in the future.

"The justice system failed me," he said. "And it fails plenty more people in the world today. Not everybody that they say is guilty is guilty. There should be more detailed investigations. Don't find people guilty before you have the full facts. That's what they did to me. They locked me up for something I didn't do, and they [knew] I didn't do it."

Innocence Project Clinic participant Ashley Brown, who graduated from the Law School in May, wrote Barbour's petition for a writ of actual innocence.

"Of everything I did in law school, writing that petition is undeniably the thing I'm most proud of," she said. "I can only imagine how relieved and vindicated Mr. Barbour must have felt when he read the Virginia Supreme Court's decision. I'm just glad that we were able to achieve a just result for him."

Barbour's case was one of roughly 1,000 in Virginia that had DNA evidence dating back to the 1970s that then-Gov. Mark R. Warner ordered tested in 2005. To date, 10 people have been exonerated in Virginia thanks to post-conviction DNA testing.

Enright and Engle said they are pleased with the court's ruling in Barbour's case, but remain skeptical that enough is being done to identify wrongful convictions in Virginia.

"The work we did on Mr. Barbour's behalf should not restore his — or anyone's — confidence in Virginia's criminal justice system," they said in a statement. "Mr. Barbour's wrongful conviction for rape came to light because of Gov. Mark Warner's insistence that the DNA evidence in old cases be tested. But the initial results in most of those cases have been inconclusive, and those inmates do not have lawyers and are not being told that they have the option of seeking more sophisticated testing. So it is impossible to know if additional testing could prove their innocence."

Moreover, Enright and Engle said, Virginia is not systemically reviewing the cases in which there was no biological evidence that could be tested for DNA — and those are the vast majority of criminal cases.

"There's no reason to think that similar mistakes weren't made in many of those cases as well," they said. "Our Innocence Project reviews old cases, of course — but two directors and 12 clinic students can only do a few cases a year. Although using the word 'lucky' to describe Mr. Barbour seems ironic, that's what he was when the initial results not only exonerated him but also matched another convicted rapist, and when he found lawyers who could represent him for free."

At the time he was arrested, Barbour was 23, working as a cook, happily married and had a baby girl on the way. His rape conviction not only cost him his freedom, it also destroyed his marriage and hurt his relationship with his daughter.

"They took my daughter from me. They took my marriage. I was happy. I was in love. They took all that from me," he said. "They took my life from me. They don't know what they done to me. Through the grace of God and my family, I pulled through this. But trust me — it is not easy to walk around here every day and keep my spirit up."

Barbour was paroled after serving 4½ years of his sentence because his friends and family presented the parole board with exculpatory evidence, such as the fact that Barbour's blood type did not match that of the attacker. Moreover, Barbour has long suffered from brittle-bone disease that has resulted in 57 broken bones in his lifetime, a condition that would have made it nearly impossible for him to physically restrain the victim.

"I know in my heart and my soul I never did nothing to that girl," he said. "Nobody can imagine, 34 years I had to walk with this over my head. My shadow. Scared to go out, scared to do this, scared to do that. I'm not a criminal. I'm not a violent person. I'm not a rapist."

A year ago, Barbour was diagnosed with cancer throughout his body. His future, he said, is uncertain, but he intends to file a civil suit to seek damages for his wrongful conviction.

"They did wrong. I didn't do wrong," he said. "I've got three beautiful grandkids and I want to spend time with them. And, yes, I want to get paid because I want to leave a college fund for my grandkids. I want to do something for my mother, and help her in any way I can. So [I'd like to] help my family or some organization that would benefit the system — give people a chance."

Barbour said he is neither bitter nor angry.

"A whole lot of people tell me, 'Bennett, I'd be angry.' No. I can't. Because anger slows down the process of being a godly person. That's what got me through [my ordeal]. My faith. As God is my witness, it was my faith."

He said he long ago accepted what happened to him, though he is glad his name has been cleared.

"I have accepted where I am, my status, my function in life," he said. "I can keep going today and tomorrow, and I'm going to continue to love every minute of it and do the best that I can by my people, my grandkids, my daughter. I'm at peace. I'm totally at peace."

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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