Marvin Anderson was exonerated in 2001 after spending 15 years in a Virginia prison and four years on parole for crimes he did not commit. His exoneration was granted after DNA evidence excluded him from the crimes, and he was the 99th person in the country to be exonerated due to DNA evidence gathered post-conviction. But had some evidence been taken more seriously at his original trial, Anderson never would have had to serve prison time for someone else’s crimes in the first place.
In July 1982, a white woman was violently attacked and raped by an African American man.
“A crime I didn’t commit,” he told WUNC in an interview at the Innocence Network Conference in April.
Nevertheless, Anderson was singled out as a suspect because the perpetrator had told the woman that he “had a white girl,’ and Anderson was the only black man that the police knew of who lived with a white woman.
Several community members heavily suspected another black man named John Otis Lincoln. Lincoln stole a bicycle the night of the crime that was later identified as the one used by the assailant. At the trial, however, Anderson’s lawyer refused to call both the owner of the bike and Lincoln to the witness stand. Anderson’s (white) girlfriend provided alibi for the night of the crime, but her word did nothing to sway the jury, which was entirely white. Anderson was was convicted of two accounts of rape, abduction, sodomy and robbery, based largely on eyewitness misidentification, government misconduct, and just plain bad lawyering.
After being found guilty, Anderson was sentenced to 210 years in prison, even though he had no previous criminal record. He was confused, mad, and horrified.
“You know you didn’t commit a crime, and yet your life is in the hands of 12 people and a judge who just said you did this crime,” Anderson said. “You don’t have anywhere to go.”
Anderson was sent to prison.
“In order to better myself and stay focused, I chose not to be angry,” Anderson explained. “Anger only does one thing to you, it takes away everything from you.”
Six years into Anderson’s prison sentence, John Otis Lincoln admitted that he committed the crime for which Anderson was convicted. He confessed under oath, but the judge that convicted Anderson called Lincoln a liar and refused to change his original ruling. When DNA testing became available to convicted felons, Anderson tried to get tested, but was told that the original rape kit had been discarded. He contacted the Innocence Project, who accepted his case in 1994.
As it turned out, the entire rape kit had not been discarded, and the Innocence Project helped Anderson get DNA tested. The results of the test excluded him from the crime, and after Anderson had been released on parole, he was finally exonerated.
“Society believes that once a person goes to court and is found guilty that he actually committed a crime,” Anderson said. “That is not the case. Not everyone that is incarcerated committed a crime. And until society believes and accepts the fact that we make mistakes, there are innocent people that are in prison.”
Anderson was 18 when he was first arrested. Nineteen years passed before he was exonerated. He now lives and works in Hanover, Virginia, where he is district chief of the Hanover Courthouse Volunteer Fire Company.