Sullivan Walter, a 53-year-old Black man who was wrongfully convicted for rape more than 36 years ago in New Orleans, became free on Thursday after a judge threw out his conviction. Judge Darryl Derbigny vehemently spoke up in support of Walter, saying blood and semen evidence that could have cleared him never made it to to the jury.
“To say this was unconscionable is an understatement,” Derbigny said in court according to the Associated Press.
Walter was arrested at the age of 17 after being accused of breaking into a home in 1986 and raping a woman who is identified as L.S. in the records. According to the allegations that surfaced at the time, Walter held a knife to the woman’s throat and threatened to harm her 8-year-old son, who slept through the incident.
Attorney Emily Maw said the woman was the only witness and she had mistakenly identified Walter.
“There were some red flags that the eyewitness testimony could well have been unreliable,” Maw told Derbigny.
The red flags were also outlined in a joint filing by the defense and prosecutors.
“In this case, L.S. was being asked to make a cross-racial identification of someone who at all the times that she could observe him was either masked, in an unlit room at night, and/or threatening her not to look at him. In addition, L.S. was not shown a photo array containing Mr. Walter until over six weeks after the crime,” the motion stated.
Defense attorneys also pointed to conflicting statements made by a police officer who worked on the case, as well as inaccuracies regarding the blood and semen evidence.
Although the woman who made the accusations is now dead, Maw said her son has expressed regret on behalf of his mother about the wrongful conviction.
Innocence Project New Orleans, a criminal justice advocacy group, worked with District Attorney Jason Williams’ office to bring justice for Walter.
“The lawyers and law enforcement involved acted as if they believed that they could do what they chose to a Black teenager from a poor family and would never be scrutinized or held to account,” Innocence Project New Orleans Legal Director Richard Davis said in a written statement. “This is not just about individuals and their choices, but the systems that let them happen.”
Walter was serving a 39-year sentence, four for a burglary charge unrelated to the rape case and 35 years for multiple charges in the rape case.