Convicted at 17, inmate, now 53, acquitted of rape

NEW ORLEANS — A black man wrongfully convicted as a teenager of rape in New Orleans more than 36 years ago was released Thursday after a judge overturned his conviction.

Sullivan Walter, now 53, used a handkerchief to wipe tears when a district judge formally vacated his conviction for a home invasion rape. Judge Darryl Derbigny expressed anger that blood and semen evidence that could have released him never made it to the jury.

“To say this was unscrupulous is an understatement,” Derbigny told Walter.

After appearing in court in New Orleans, Walter was taken to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, where he was officially released.

District Attorney Jason Williams’s office worked with defense attorneys who partnered with Innocence Project New Orleans, a criminal justice advocacy group, to overturn the conviction.

Walter was 17 when he was arrested in connection with the rape in New Orleans. The rapist had entered the victim’s home, identified on file as LS, in May 1986, held a knife to her throat and threatened to harm her 8-year-old son, who slept through the incident.

Emily Maw, an attorney with Williams’ office, outlined the issues in the case in court, noting that there was reason to believe that the victim, the only witness, had incorrectly identified Walter.

“There were some red flags that the eyewitness statements may have been unreliable,” Maw told Derbigny.

Those “red flags” were set forth in a joint filing by the defense and prosecutors ahead of Thursday’s hearing.

“In this case, LS was asked to make a cross-racial identification of someone who was either masked at all times she could observe him, in an unlit room at night, and/or threatened her not to look at him. . In addition, LS was not shown a series of photos with Mr Walter until more than six weeks after the crime,” the motion said.

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More importantly, no evidence was presented about Walter’s blood characteristics that did not match the semen collected from the victim after the rape.

The filing also mentions years of errors by Walter’s previous attorneys, including failure to point to conflicting statements from a police officer who worked on the case and missteps during the appeals process regarding the blood and semen evidence.

When he was acquitted on Thursday, Walter had served a total sentence of 39 years — four for a burglary unrelated to the rape case, and 35 years for multiple charges in the rape case.

Lawyers say the rape victim has died. Maw said in court that authorities had contacted the victim’s son, who was not present, and that he had expressed regret about the wrongful conviction on behalf of his mother.

Innocence Project New Orleans Legal Director Richard Davis said Walter’s race was a factor in the wrongful conviction.

“The attorneys and law enforcement officers involved acted as if they believed they could do whatever they wanted with a black teen from a poor family and would never be investigated or held accountable,” Davis said in a written statement. “It’s not just about individuals and their choices, but the systems that make them happen.”

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