NEW ORLEANS – A black man wrongfully convicted as a juvenile for the New Orleans rape more than 36 years ago was ordered free on Thursday after a judge struck down his sentence.
Sullivan Walter, now 53, used a handkerchief to wipe away tears as the state’s district judge formally vacated his sentence for house-invasion rape. Judge Darryl Derbigny expressed anger that the evidence of blood and semen that could have cleaned him never appeared before a jury.
“To say it was unconscious is an understatement,” Derbigny told Walter.
After appearing in court in New Orleans, Walter was taken to the Ellen Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, where he was officially released.
District Attorney Jason Williams’ office joined with defense attorneys working with the Innocence Project New Orleans, a criminal justice advocacy group, to vacate the conviction.
Walter was 17 when he was arrested in connection with the New Orleans rape. The rapist had entered the victim’s house, identified as LS, in May 1986, held a knife to her neck and threatened to harm her 8-year-old son, who had fallen asleep during the incident.
Emily Maw, an attorney in Williams’ office, outlined the problems in the case in court, noting that there were reasons to believe the victim, the sole witness, had mistakenly identified Walter.
“There were some red flags that eyewitness testimony could have been unreliable,” Maw told Derbigny.
Those “red flags” were uttered in a joint filing by defense and prosecutors ahead of Thursday’s hearing.
“In this case, LS was being asked to create a cross-racial identity of someone who could see her at all times that she was masked in a dark room at night, and/or threatened her not to see her.” Furthermore, LS was not shown a photo array containing Mr. Walter until six weeks after the crime,” the motion stated.
More significantly, no evidence was presented about Walter’s blood characteristics that did not match with semen collected from the victim after the rape.
The filing also covers years of errors by Walter’s previous attorneys, including failing to point to conflicting statements by a police officer and wrongdoing during the appeals process regarding blood and semen evidence.
When he was acquitted Thursday, Walter was serving a total sentence of 39 years — four for the theft charge related to the rape case, and 35 years for the multiple charges in the rape case.
The lawyers said that the rape victim is now dead. Maw told the court that officers had contacted the victim’s son, who was not present, and that he expressed regret on his mother’s behalf about the wrongful conviction.
Innocence Project New Orleans legal director Richard Davis said Walter’s race was a factor in the wrongful conviction.
Davis said in a written statement, “The lawyers and law enforcement involved acted as if they believed they could do whatever they chose for a black teen from a poor family and It will never be investigated or accounted for.” “It’s not just about individuals and their choices, but about the systems that allow them to be.”