NEW ORLEANS – A black man unjustly convicted as a teen of rape was ordered Thursday in New Orleans more than 36 years ago, after a judge overturned his conviction.
Sullivan Walter, now 53, used a tissue to wipe away tears after a district judge formally overturned his conviction for house rape. Judge Daryl Derbini expressed his anger that the blood and semen evidence that would have exonerated him did not make it to the jury.
“To say this is unreasonable is an understatement,” Derbini told Walter.
After his court appearance in New Orleans, Walter was transferred to Ellen Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, where he was officially released.
The Office of District Attorney Jason Williams has joined forces with defense attorneys working with the Innocence Project New Orleans, a criminal justice advocacy group, to overturn the conviction.
Walter was 17 years old when he was arrested in connection with the rape in New Orleans. The rapist had entered the victim’s home, who was identified in the register as L.
Emily Mau, a lawyer in Williams’ office, outlined the problems in the case in court, noting that there were reasons to believe that the victim, the sole witness, had mistakenly identified Walter.
“There have been some red flags that indicate that eyewitness testimony can be unreliable,” Mao told Durbini.
These “red flags” were contained in a file shared by the defense and prosecutors ahead of Thursday’s hearing.
“In this case, L.S. was asked to make a racial identification of someone who at all times she could watch was either masked, in an unlit room at night, and/or threatened not to look at him. Additionally, L.S. was not shown An array of photographs containing Mr. Walter until more than six weeks after the crime.”
More importantly, no evidence was presented of Walter’s blood characteristics that did not match the semen collected from the victim after the rape.
The filing also recounts years of mistakes made by Walter’s previous lawyers, including failure to refer to conflicting statements by a police officer who worked on the case and errors during the appeal process regarding blood and semen evidence.
When he was acquitted Thursday, Walter was serving a total sentence of 39 years – four for burglary unrelated to the rape case, and 35 years for multiple counts in the rape case.
The lawyers said the rape victim is now dead. Mao said in court that the authorities had contacted the victim’s son, who was not present, and that he had expressed regret on his mother’s behalf about the wrongful conviction.
Richard Davis, the legal director of the Innocence Project in New Orleans, said Walter’s race was a factor in the wrongful conviction.
“The lawyers and law enforcement involved acted as if they believed they could do what they chose to a black teenager from a poor family and would not be vetted or held accountable,” Davis said in a written statement. “This is not just about individuals and their choices, but the systems that allow them to happen.”