Saturday, September 03, 2016

A repentant false accuser

The last time Thomas Webb III had seen her, she’d glared at him from across a courtroom with a hatred that still haunted him.

He’d spent more than half his life wondering why she’d picked him from photo lineups and pointed him out to a 1983 jury as the man who’d raped her. After more than 13 years in prison, and an even longer descent into addiction and homelessness, he’d learned to accept that he may never know the answer.

And now here she was.

She’d tapped him on his shoulder as he was about to take the stage of a high school auditorium in February 2015 to share his epic tale of injustice. They were about the same age, mid-50s, and her brown hair was streaked with gray. “Could I talk to you for a minute, please?” she asked.

He followed her into a hallway, where she told him her name. His gut skipped.

She stepped back, afraid of how he’d react.

“Thomas, I’ve been waiting so long to say this: I’m so sorry,” she said. She crumpled into tears. “I’m so, so sorry.”

Webb, who is 6 feet tall, with a broad chest and dark, weary eyes, listened in amazement. It was the first time anyone had apologized for what had happened to him. “It’s OK,” he told her. “I forgive you. I forgave you a long time ago.” He put his arms around her. He began to cry, too.

They embraced, minds racing, until he remembered why he was there. They exchanged awkward goodbyes. Then he went onstage to explain how a man can be convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, why innocence, when stolen, can never be fully returned, and that exoneration is just the start of the struggle for justice.

But as he spoke, he experienced an odd sense of relief, like an old injury that had stopped aching. In the audience, a similar response washed over her. It felt like healing.

He wrote her a letter once. It was 1982, soon after he’d been charged with breaking into the apartment of a white 19-year-old woman in Norman, where she attended the University of Oklahoma, raping her at knifepoint and stealing cash from her purse. He was 22, a black man new to Oklahoma who didn’t attend the school but partied with students there. He’d previously been arrested for a dormitory break-in, which was why his picture had ended up in photo lineups where the victim had picked him out — twice.

His note, penned from the Cleveland County Jail, said he felt terrible about what happened to her, but she’d made a big mistake. He pleaded with her to admit she’d chosen the wrong man.

She never saw it. It probably wouldn’t have swayed her, anyway. She was not lying. She was sure he was the one.

She took the stand against him. After the first trial ended in a hung jury, prosecutors offered Webb a plea deal that would have put him in prison for 15 years. His court-appointed lawyer urged him to accept. That was the moment when he realized that no one, not even the man being paid to defend him, believed he was innocent.

The second trial lasted one day. It included testimony from the victim and a state expert who said hairs found at the scene matched Webb’s. The jury deliberated for an hour before convicting him. The judge sentenced him to 60 years: 30 for rape, 15 for burglary, 10 for forcible oral sodomy, five for grand larceny.

In prison, he was a sex offender, at the bottom of the inmate hierarchy, a status that made his life a horror that he still does not like to talk about.

His appeals failed, and he grew to accept that he would die behind bars. He shut himself off to the outside world — an adjustment exacerbated by the fact that, other than a visit from a friend in the first year, no one, not even his family, came to see him.  He began to doubt his own innocence. But he prayed, building a relationship with God that kept him from going mad.

Meanwhile, the victim — who asked that she only be identified as K —  tried to reassemble her life. It helped to know that her attacker had been locked away. Or so she thought.

In late 1992, as Webb closed in on a decade behind bars, a church choir visited Joseph Harp Correctional Center to put on a Christmas musical. One of the singers was Gail Snow, a single mother who was drawn to Webb from the moment her group began working with the inmates; she found him attractive, good natured, devout, respectful. They wrote, then spoke by phone, and then she began visiting him. He told Gail he hadn’t raped anyone, but he didn’t press the issue, saying God would show her the truth.

Two years passed, and they prepared to marry. As the wedding day approached, Gail heard about a new development in criminal justice, something that had come up during O.J. Simpson’s trial: DNA. She mentioned it to him, as did his father, during his first visit to the prison. Webb agreed to explore his options. Gail cashed in her retirement account to hire a lawyer and arrange for semen samples lifted from K’s robe to be examined. Gail had trouble finding someone to take his case. But she did. They found the old evidence and submitted it to a lab.

The results came back in early 1996: the DNA was not Webb’s.

“It was like I came back from the dead,” Webb recalled. “All of a sudden, I started to believe in my own innocence. They really didn’t have to release me. It was just the fact that someone else knew that I didn’t do it.”

Prosecutors confirmed the results. A judge granted Webb a new trial, then allowed the charges to be dismissed. “There’s nothing I can do to correct the 13 years of injustice that he has endured in this case,” the district attorney at the time, Tim Kuykendall, said in court.

Kuykendall also stressed that blame did not lie with the victim. “I do not believe she lied,” he said. “I think she truly believed Mr. Webb was the perpetrator.”

Much more here

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