CHESAPEAKE — When a 12-year-old girl reported she was raped in Portsmouth in 1977, Roy L. Watford III was an 18-year-old tuba player in the Woodrow Wilson High School marching band.
The victim named Watford and his two brothers as the assailants. His brothers were not convicted. Watford, however, heeded his grandfather’s wishes and pleaded guilty in exchange for 10 years of probation instead of risking up to life behind bars by going to trial.
Watford stayed in school and out of prison. But he said the deal “really messed my life up.”
At age 57, his most recent job paid $8 an hour. “It’s hard for me to make enough money to take care of my family,” he said. “I hope I can be cleared of this.”
Watford and his lawyer, Jon Sheldon of Fairfax, now believe he can be exonerated.
Last month, DNA testing by the Virginia Department of Forensic Science found that Watford’s DNA did not match the genetic profile identified in sperm recovered from the victim and her jeans and two other genetic profiles in sperm from two mattress stains. Testing in 2010 failed to match the DNA of his two younger brothers with any of the three suspect DNA profiles.
The light sentence, faded memories, and missing and conflicting records raise many unanswered questions about the crime, as well as concerns about the potential for plea bargaining to snare the innocent.
Sheldon is preparing a writ of actual innocence for the Virginia Supreme Court that he hopes the Attorney General’s Office will support. A spokesman for the attorney general declined to comment, noting the petition has not yet been filed.
Earlier this month, Portsmouth Police Chief Tonya D. Chapman and Capt. Scott Burke met with Sheldon about the case and DNA results. Burke said the department will not oppose the petition.
“The DNA evidence is clear,” Burke said. “He’s not the person that committed this crime. So his record should be cleared.”
Many details about the assault — such as whether it happened on Sept. 13 or Sept. 14, 1977 — remain unclear, Sheldon said. Also, it appears from the DNA reports that the forensic lab does not have a sample of the victim’s DNA and there has been no report of a “cold hit” on another suspect, something that would further help Watford’s case for exoneration.
Watford and his younger brothers, Anthony and Evelio, also teenagers at the time, recall little about the allegations. The only court record found is Watford’s June 14, 1978, Portsmouth Circuit Court sentencing order.
One thing is clear: DNA testing indicates three males’ sperm collected at the scene of the crime was not left by any of the Watford brothers.
Roy Watford and the victim knew each other, so if an error was made it apparently was not mistaken identification.
The victim recently told Sheldon’s investigator that she has put the matter behind her and will not cooperate. Sheldon also said she has told the police the same thing, though police would not confirm that.
“It’s just a mystery,” Sheldon said.
The Watford brothers were living with their grandparents, Roy L. Watford Sr. and Hattie Watford, in the Brighton area of Portsmouth in 1977.
They said the assault was believed to have occurred in a vacant house in the Prentiss Park area of Portsmouth, not far from where the Watfords lived.
Watford said he and the girl were friends but never kissed, much less had sex, and that he had not seen her for several months when he was accused.
In requests for laboratory examinations of evidence to the state forensic lab, Portsmouth police reported that the victim said she was raped vaginally and anally on a bare mattress by three males who put a quilt over her head.
A 1977 forensic lab note said the doctor at the Naval Regional Medical Center in Portsmouth who reported examining the victim within two hours of the assault found no evidence of physical trauma or injury. She named the three Watford brothers as the assailants to the police.
Watford learned he was a suspect when he returned home from an after-school job and his grandfather told him the police had been looking for him.
His grandfather drove him to the police station, where the teenager was questioned. Watford said he and his grandfather knew he was innocent, but his grandfather persuaded him to take the plea deal so he could remain free.
“He didn’t want to see me do any time. That would hurt him more than anything else,” Watford said.
Watford does not recall ever going to court. But the sentencing order in the case notes that he pleaded guilty March 23, 1978, and that he and his lawyer appeared before the judge.
The order goes on to say there was testimony and arguments before the 10-year suspended sentence was imposed.
James Wayne Sprinkle, a lawyer who represented one of Watford’s younger brothers in Portsmouth Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, vaguely remembers a hearing with the three brothers and the girl.
“It was on a Friday afternoon, and there were three lawyers involved in asking the alleged victim questions. And it went on and on until the night. After it was all said and done, my guy walked out of there without any continuing charge against him,” Sprinkle said.
Sprinkle, however, does not recall details of the case. He said he has searched his old records but has not been able to find any files.
Roy Watford’s lawyer, S. Earl Griffin, does not remember the case but said that given the light sentence, “it sounds like at that time the commonwealth’s attorney must have had some real misgivings.
“Having been a commonwealth’s attorney, I can tell you that there are times that you want something (out of a case) and not lose it all,” so a deal attractive to the defendant is offered, he said.
Deals also can be appealing to the defendant, Griffin said. “The defense lawyer can think that he has a 99.9 percent chance of winning but ... there is that chance that a jury is going to find him guilty.”
James A. Cales Jr., the Portsmouth commonwealth’s attorney at the time and now a retired judge, also does not recall the case, which he said was likely handled by one of his assistants.
In general, he said, a lenient sentence might be offered because a victim may be too young to offer the testimony needed for conviction.
Also, he said, sometimes parents are not willing to have their children go through the legal process and testify.
“There could be any number of reasons,” Cales said.
Griffin and Cales agreed that Watford certainly would have to have appeared in court. But Griffin said he could understand why adults might not be able to recall proceedings they went through as teenagers. And Cales added that sentencing procedures then tended to be shorter with fewer questions asked by the judge.
Griffin said he was glad to learn of the recent DNA test results in Watford’s case.
“Even though it’s coming 38 years later, it’s nice to hear this one is being corrected as a result of DNA,” he said.
If Watford is exonerated by the Virginia Supreme Court, his case would illustrate a problem sometimes posed by plea deals.
The most recent annual figures available show that 91 percent of felony cases in Virginia were resolved by guilty pleas. Just 8 percent were tried by judges and little more than 1 percent by juries.
Without the efficiency of guilty pleas, the criminal justice system would quickly grind to a halt. And pleas also can offer some measure of justice for the guilty in weak cases.
Yet deals also can pressure the innocent to plead guilty.
According to the Innocence Project, 33 of the 342 people cleared by DNA in the U.S. pleaded guilty, including two of Virginia’s 15 DNA exonerations.
The National Registry of Exonerations reported in February that there were 65 guilty-plea exonerations in 2015, more than in any other year. Most of them were drug cases, but eight were for homicides, all of which included false confessions.
Experts say subsequent claims of innocence by people who pleaded guilty are less likely to get attention — even from innocence advocates — than those who have maintained innocence all along.
Watford was lucky: The police sent the saliva samples from the three Watford brothers and other evidence to the Virginia Department of Forensic Science in 1977 for blood typing by one of several examiners who saved pieces of evidence in their files.
Other evidence police sent to the lab to look for semen included biological material recovered from the victim’s vagina, the quilt, pieces cut from the mattress, the victim’s jeans and hair.
A lab report that focused on the hair found on a piece of fabric cut from the mattress concluded that neither the victim nor the Watfords could be eliminated as possible sources of individual hairs. However, the value of such forensic hair comparison has since become questionable.
Eleven Virginians have been cleared so far of wrongful rape convictions by subjecting the old evidence discovered in the forensic files to DNA testing. The discovery of the material in the files from cases handled before the widespread use of DNA prompted a massive, post-conviction testing project begun in 2005.
Officials with the Department of Forensic Science could not discuss specific cases but said that in general, the project required letters — return receipt requested — be sent to convicted individuals alerting them that DNA testing would be conducted. The letters asked them to return an included postcard indicating the notice had reached the correct person, and it also notified them that free legal advice was available from the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.
When the testing was completed, another notification was mailed to those who returned the postcard. The second letter said they were entitled to a copy of the certificate of analysis, and it explained how to request a copy of the test results.
If a new DNA sample was needed for comparison in a case from a defendant, the request would have been included in the certificate of analysis.
In 2010, the project tested the old saliva samples from Watford and his two younger brothers, who had been charged but not convicted.
The brothers’ DNA did not match the genetic profiles of at least three different males identified in sperm from the evidence.
When it came to Watford, however, his saliva sample did not yield a DNA profile. That was noted in the 2010 certificate of analysis that he recalls receiving.
Watford remembers learning around that time that his brothers had been excluded and said he contacted the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project in Washington but was unsure what happened after that.
Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Innocence Project, said the organization received correspondence from Watford around 2008 or 2009 — presumably after the Department of Forensic Science notified him there would be testing — in which he strongly stated he was innocent.
Watford was sent a questionnaire and a release to sign, so the Innocence Project could obtain test results from the forensics lab when completed. However, he did not send back a signed release, and the office was crushed with calls from other offenders who also were receiving notices from the forensics lab.
By the time the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project wrote back to Watford, he apparently had moved and did not receive the letter. Armbrust said her office never knew that Watford’s brothers had been excluded by testing in 2010.
The case remained dormant until last year, when Watford disclosed to a family friend that even though he was innocent, he pleaded guilty to rape in 1978, leading to a lifetime of employment problems. The friend contacted Sheldon, who agreed to take on the case.
“’I’m just glad I found lawyer Sheldon because I couldn’t, you know, get some help,” he said.
Sheldon was instrumental in the exoneration of Bennett Barbour of Charles City County in 2012. The lawyer located Barbour, who had bone cancer, to tell him DNA test results had cleared him of a 1978 rape in Williamsburg. Barbour died in 2013 but not before he was exonerated and able to vote for the first time in his life.
Sheldon said his first telephone call with Watford persuaded him to get involved.
“It just made no sense,” he said of a 10-year suspended sentence for rape. “It was highly suspicious.”
Sheldon got prompt help from Portsmouth police who obtained a new saliva sample from Watford and quick testing by the Department of Forensic Science. The June 17 certificate of analysis shows that Watford’s DNA — just as the DNA of his brothers — did not match the genetic profiles from the vaginal sample, the jeans or the mattress.
Still, Sheldon is holding out hope that the victim will step forward to share information she may have. She lives in the Hampton Roads region and did not respond to requests for comment from the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“Mr. Watford wants to put it behind him, too. But he hasn’t been able to,” Sheldon said. If he could speak with the victim, Sheldon said, he’d say, “Let’s talk about Mr. Watford, who’s had to live for 38 years with his conviction.”
Watford and his brothers recall hearing about a rape in the community in 1977 and that it had been perpetrated by someone their age who also lived in the area. That man has serious criminal convictions and is now serving life in prison. He also has a brother or cousin on parole after 1988 convictions for rape and abduction in Portsmouth.
However, the 2010 certificate of analysis by the Department of Forensic Science indicates the DNA results in the case were run through the state’s DNA databank to find a possible match but that nothing turned up.
Describing his hope for exoneration, Watford recalled some advice he got as a child.
“Like my grandmother always (told) me, ‘Once you get into something, it’s hard to get out,’” he said.