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Marvin Anderson started volunteering at the Hanover Courthouse Volunteer Fire Company when he was 13; now he’s district chief.
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A 17-year-old Marvin graduates from the REACT alternative high school program; at 15, he plays for his church softball league. photos courtesy innocense project
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Joan Anderson, Marvin’s mother, holds one of many binders containing court transcripts. She has boxes of documents dating back to the start of her son’s legal saga.
Marvin Anderson heard the sentence, and the courtroom turned dark. He couldn't see his mother, even though he'd turned around to face her. The number echoed.
Two hundred and ten years in prison. Marvin was 18, and the sentence was almost 12 times as long as he'd been alive.
Soon, he found himself sitting alone in a holding cell, still wearing his suit from court, paralyzed with disbelief. He couldn't understand what had happened.
He might never be free again.
He would never go to Lee-Davis High School as a senior, never wear the school's football jersey on his back, never become a paid firefighter and never again play baseball with his younger brother, Maurice.
All of his plans scattered, as nothing but prison loomed ahead. All because of a vicious crime that he didn't commit.
How could it have happened? he asked himself. He hadn't done anything wrong.
A woman who Marvin didn't know said he had held her captive in a patch of woods close to the apartment complex in Ashland where they both lived. The 24-year-old woman identified him, testified that he had raped her twice, threatened to shoot her, and degraded her in almost every way possible over several hours on a hot July evening in 1982.
Marvin felt bad for her, because she was obviously traumatized, but he knew he hadn't done it. And yet the Ashland police and the Hanover County Commonwealth's Attorney's Office believed he did. So did the victim, who said his face would always haunt her.
In the end, Marvin Anderson — and what happened to him after his conviction in December 1982 — would haunt the victim, as well as many others who were in the county courthouse that day.
Marvin knew he was innocent, but no one else knew that for sure. Now he had been convicted of a horrible crime — a monstrous act — that another person had committed. He was sentenced to spend two centuries in prison. How could this have happened? And how could he survive it?
The oldest of six siblings , including one brother who died at six weeks old, Marvin was an athletic boy, playing softball, baseball, basketball and football, along with his brother Maurice, born two years later. Whereas Maurice was more of a joker, Marvin was quieter, says his mother, Joan. The boys were together most of the time as they grew up in eastern Hanover County, along Route 301 near the courthouse and the fire station. Cousins, aunts and uncles, including one who invited the boys of Marvin's generation to the fire station to hang out and more particularly to keep out of trouble, were a fixture in the Anderson kids' lives, even when they moved to Ashland around 1977.
Marvin moved a little farther away after middle school, attending REACT, an alternative high school in Richmond's Manchester neighborhood, and living with his uncle in the city's North Side for two years. For the first time, he found teachers who loved to teach, who were supportive of their students and were able to work with them more closely because of small class sizes. Some of the students there had misbehavior in their background, but Marvin went to the school to get a fresh start and more individual help, his mother says. The other kids were just regular high school students, and Marvin felt lucky to be among them.
In the summer of 1982, between working for his grandfather's landscaping company and running the Time Shaft ride at Kings Dominion, Marvin started training to be a paid firefighter, a job he'd prepared for since age 13. As a junior volunteer firefighter, he'd felt the adrenaline rush of entering a burning house. When he heard the alarm, he'd cut through his grandparents' yard and run to the station.
His mother worried, but there was only so much she could do to keep Marvin away from firefighting.
Marvin also had fallen in love. At 24, Stephanie was six years older, but this was no unrequited crush. In January, they started living together at the garden-style Ashland Towne Square Apartments, the town's first apartment complex, not far from Marvin's mother and younger siblings' apartment. He had given her an engagement ring a couple of weeks earlier on her birthday, and they were talking about their future, starting a family.
Life was good on that balmy Saturday evening in July, as he played second base in a church-league softball game. Afterward, he pulled his fiancée's car around to the parking lot in front of his mother's apartment, where there was a bright streetlight, and began washing and waxing the car in a leisurely fashion around 8 p.m.
One of his sisters was watching cartoons, and a couple of neighbors sat outside, taking in the summer night. An hour later, Marvin came home to Stephanie.
Only a short walk away from where Marvin washed the car, a slender blonde, 24, had come home from babysitting in Fredericksburg. Her Toyota wouldn't start back up. She decided to walk down a grass path from the Ashland Towne Square Apartments to a shopping center off Route 1, where she picked up a bucket of fried chicken for her and her fiancé around 7:30 p.m.
Night was starting to fall, but she could still see. A man rode up to her on a silver bicycle while she was in the parking lot. He offered to escort her back to the apartments. Then he asked for a piece of chicken. The woman said no to both. The man rode off.
The next time she saw him, a few minutes later, they were on the path, and he was on the ground clutching his knee by the 10-speed. She put down the chicken bucket and offered to help.
He grabbed her by the arms and dragged her into the woods. She passed some trash, two discarded mattresses. He said he had a gun. Then he told her to take off her black top and jeans. The man smashed her glasses, cutting her just above the right eye. Then he began to rape her.
Because she'd taken off her clothes, he said, she had consented to everything that would happen. The woman was afraid that he would shoot her, but she still tried to get away — attempts that would earn her severe beatings and kickings, hard enough that she drifted away from her body, like she was watching from the tree branches.
Hours passed, and the man uttered words that would burn in her memory. She looked like his white girlfriend. He'd make her put on his girlfriend's jeans and send her down to Richmond, earn him some money. After hours of mental torture and physical attacks, he committed a final insult, urinating on her.
The man was finally gone, and she was left to scramble, naked and bruised, down a four-wheeler road back to the apartment complex. She saw some neighbors outside with their dates, and clutching herself for modesty, called over to them. She asked them not to laugh because she wasn't streaking; she had been raped.
The woman went to St. Luke's Hospital, where fluids were collected for a rape kit, which would be sent to Richmond for testing by a forensic examiner. She described her rapist as standing 5-feet-4 to 5-feet-6, medium build and medium complexion, with a light mustache. A black man in his early 20s.
Back at her apartment , she looked at a stack of 10 or 12 pictures a police officer handed her. They were all of young black men, black-and-white criminal mug shots, except for one — a color photo from a Kings Dominion ID badge. With visceral disgust, she flung the picture aside after looking for a couple of seconds. He was the one, her gut told her.
Could it have been the color picture, where all the others were black and white, or maybe she'd seen him around the apartment complex? It's hard to tell for sure. She was convinced she was right.
And since she had spent hours with the rapist, it was hard to assail her identification, the prosecutor, Trip Chalkley, notes almost 30 years later.
For Marvin, the photo identification was the start of his downfall. Tuesday evening, his supervisor at Kings Dominion asked him to come to his office. Two police officers were waiting. Marvin, whose apartment had been searched, expected the police to take him for a polygraph test, but plans had changed.
He was fired and arrested, charged with one count of rape.
In the building that held the sheriff's department and the commonwealth's attorney's office, Marvin stood in a line with five convicts and a police officer. The victim entered the room once, turned around and left quickly, and came back again, apparently making sure she had made the right choice.
The lineup was over, an investigator announced, and Marvin broke down crying. He didn't need to be told. "My God," he cried out, "she's picked me."
But his family gathered around him, and his mother bonded him out with her aunt's home as collateral. They talked to lawyers, including Michael Morchower, the flamboyant defense attorney from Richmond, who said he could win the case but charged a high fee. The family instead settled on Donald M. White, a lawyer based in Hanover. The price was right, Joan says, and her aunt thought he'd do a good enough job for Marvin.
But soon enough, Joan was doing detective work herself. Maurice told her that the rumor around Ashland was that a man named John Otis Lincoln had committed the rape. As she went to pick up Marvin from jail, an employee mentioned that Lincoln was always in trouble. He'd been charged with felonious assault after a fight with a man just a couple of months after he'd been released from prison in April.
The 22-year-old Lincoln, who went by Pop, had been sentenced to five years with 16 years suspended for attempted rape and other charges after he invaded a girl's dorm room at Randolph-Macon College in 1979. Less than three years later, he was back in Hanover, last seen drinking Wild Irish Rose wine at a car wash near Route 1 and taking another man's bicycle on the same day in July the rape had occurred. Even his cousin, who worked with Joan for the county, said Lincoln had done it and was hiding out in Glen Allen.
There was a problem, though. Pop Lincoln's picture had been in the selection given to the victim, but she'd nonetheless chosen Marvin. Joan pushed the police and Donald White to look into Lincoln. He wound up on the list of potential defense witnesses, along with Marvin's fiancée, the neighbors who saw him washing her car and a couple of softball players. Marvin and his family held a slender hope that the victim would see Lincoln in court and suddenly recognize him as the real rapist.
Instead, the victim tearfully recounted on the stand what had happened. She was sure who did it — Marvin.
The defense called witnesses who testified about the timeline of Marvin's evening. But the prosecutor, Chalkley, questioned their motivations, as they all were friends or loved ones of the teen.
Lincoln was never called. The softball players from the church game also weren't called to testify on Marvin's behalf.
After the testimony of the victim and other witnesses, the judge called a brief recess. Marvin and his family stood outside the courthouse, smoking and talking. The victim walked up to the group and asked for a light. Marvin was standing the closest to her. Stunned, he told her he had a light and struck a match. She apparently didn't know it was him.
At 5 p.m., the case was given to the jury — eight women and four men, all white. They returned three hours later with five decisions. Guilty, the forewoman said, on all five counts. Two counts of rape. One count each of sodomy and kidnapping. And one count of robbery, because the rapist had taken 21 cents from the victim.
And more: At first, the jurors recommended 90 years in prison, but somewhere along the way, they reconsidered the decision. The forewoman crossed out the number 20 on four of the charges and changed it to 50. The new total came to 210 years.
"The expression they had on their faces," Marvin says of the jurors, "it basically told me that I was going to prison."
Darkness swept over Marvin, as he walked, handcuffed and shackled, to the holding cell. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.
Two hundred and ten years.
The following day , Dec. 15, 1982, Marvin took off his suit, put on a green jail jumpsuit and entered the old Hanover-Pamunkey Regional Jail until his sentencing hearing in March. Most of the time, inmates sat in their cellblocks, sometimes watching M*A*S*H* and American Bandstand.
He kept a low profile and learned an important lesson, that sometimes good people get caught up in bad situations. Some of the inmates he met were friendly, sociable guys who had made mistakes in their lives.
Meanwhile, his mother replaced White the first week of 1983 with a group of Richmond lawyers, partly funded by the NAACP and community fundraisers. Even people outside Virginia who heard about Marvin's case pitched in.
David Boone, André Long and Sa'ad El-Amin took on the case, but it was clear to them from the start that it would not be easy.
Overturning a jury verdict is no joke, and DNA profiling did not exist in 1983. It would be more than a year later when an English scientist would develop the process, and four years later when genetic testing was used in a trial. The lawyers would have to uncover other evidence.
In March, Circuit Court Judge Richard H.C. Taylor, who oversaw the criminal trial, approved the jury's sentencing recommendation, sending Marvin to prison for 210 years but with the possibility of parole. Boone promptly requested a new trial, a motion Taylor denied.
Several months later, at the end of the summer, Marvin left jail and went to Southampton Correctional Center, a now-defunct institution near Emporia. The next three years would be a constant loop of hope and despair.
Marvin's fiancée , Stephanie, and his mother were regular visitors when he was sent to Southampton, coming every week. They'd sometimes bring food, almost like they were having a picnic. In 1984, Marvin and Stephanie got married in the prison recreation room, she in a white dress, surrounded by a small clutch of friends and family. They served cake after exchanging vows.
As he had learned to do in jail, Marvin kept his head down. He learned such trades as carpentry, mechanics and welding. He took college classes through a program with Paul D. Camp Community College, until the program was shut down after budget cuts. Early on, an older inmate pulled Marvin aside, giving him valuable advice: Don't ask anyone why they're here. It's not your business, the man said, implying that being too curious might be dangerous.
Outside prison, Marvin's lawyers were working on more motions, all of which were denied, despite containing new evidence. Virginia was then — and is still — considered one of the country's toughest states when it comes to allowing new evidence after sentencing, even when it might prove innocence. The 21-day rule was supposed to bring peace to crime victims and their families, cutting off the introduction of any new evidence three weeks after sentencing. A false peace, in some instances.
But even with denials stacking up, at least there was room for hope with each new motion. In 1984, Chalkley, now a defense attorney, represented an 18-year-old client named Thomas Haynesworth, who, like Marvin at the time of his trial, was a rising high school senior accused of rape.
Thomas, too, would receive a long sentence — 74 years — after being convicted in three rape cases, two in Richmond and the other in Henrico County. He showed up at Southampton in 1986, living on the floor above Marvin. They played on the same basketball team, and found they both loved R&B and jazz, as well as the Dallas Cowboys. They didn't talk about their crimes, although Thomas had some idea what was going on with Marvin's court motions.
Friendships come and go in prison, Marvin says, and sometimes a guy will promise to write after he gets out, but you can never count on what will happen on the outside. Yet with Thomas, there was a bond.
That friendship would help, as Marvin suffered a tragedy that still marks him: his brother Maurice's death in a 1986 traffic accident. He learned the news via a phone call from his mother, telling Marvin that his 20-year-old brother and a friend had both died. If he'd been out of prison, Marvin thought, he might have been in the car with them.
Always the big brother, Marvin's first thoughts were that he had to be strong for his younger sisters. He also hoped to attend the funeral. His mother and lawyers put in a request, but the state waited until the last minute to inform Marvin he couldn't go because of the nature of his crime, a decision that still stings. Maurice never liked visiting his brother in prison because, as he told his mother, he always wanted to break Marvin out.
As Marvin learned the ways of prison, Lincoln began sending rambling letters in cramped handwriting — part self-pity over his 21-year prison sentence after violating parole, part confession. These missives, written in his cell at Sussex, went to Judge Taylor and also to Sa'ad El-Amin, one of Marvin's lawyers. The letters acknowledged his guilt in the 1982 rape, with varying amount of detail. In 1988, Lincoln was brought before Judge Taylor.
Marvin was in the courtroom, waiting to see what Lincoln would say. Would he give details or remain vague? Lincoln spoke. He said things only the rapist or the victim would know, Marvin thought. He knew he would be going home that day. No doubt.
Taylor listened, and then he said he needed time to consider the evidence. Marvin wasn't going home that day.
And he wouldn't, because the judge wrote in his ruling that he didn't believe Lincoln, simply because he lied so often in the past. The conviction would stand.
The attorneys appealed the decision all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the case was one of many waiting for a place on the docket, which can take years. And each time he faced the parole board, having declared his innocence to the interviewer, Marvin was turned down. A psychologist's report, saying he matched the profile of a rapist and was too dangerous to be released, didn't help matters.
In 1993, Marvin's name was on a list of potential pardon recipients on Gov. Doug Wilder's desk, but he was passed over. (Wilder did grant clemency to Allen Iverson, the NBA star from Hampton, after his conviction earlier that year for maiming by mob.)
In 1994, the newly formed Innocence Project chose to take Marvin's case, after reviewing letters from him and his mother. Now there were more people — high-powered New York attorneys and tenacious law students — on his side. But how much good could they possibly do him?
Hope, so hard to come by, was fading. After so long, what chance did Marvin have to reclaim his life?
One day, his mother talked to him about Stephanie. They loved each other, Joan knew, but what kind of life would she have, married to a man in prison? Stephanie still wanted to have children, but she was in her mid-30s and might not have the chance if she remained married to him. "I told him, ‘Marvin, she needs to go on with her life,' " Joan says.
Stephanie and Marvin talked about it during one of her regular visits. He told her he would let her go, grant her a divorce. She accepted. Even afterward, they still talked and hugged each other.
Somewhere in the thick of all of these disappointments, Marvin started to attend church services and Bible study classes. It was more than just keeping occupied; he felt different, and the days seemed to pass more quickly.
One day after his mother's visit, he took her advice and prayed. Marvin knelt in his cell and heard a voice. His mother remembers exactly what it said: "You just wait. I'll take care of this." Marvin then dedicated his heart to Jesus.
He and Thomas had such clean disciplinary records that they both made it into the "honor building," with single rooms that locked, access to personal TVs and music players, plus personal clothing, as long as they weren't required to wear state blues. It was like a college dorm, Thomas says.
Marvin laughs and says it wasn't exactly paradise. There was no getting away from the fact that he was in prison with no clear way out, even with all the perks of the honor building. Thomas also has a strong faith and family support, which he says has helped him survive all of the years behind bars. Following prison etiquette, they never talked about the crimes.
"Me and Marvin, we'd talk about things we wanted to do when we got out," Thomas says. Fishing, music, sports — they talked about anything but the reasons they were there.
"We got to know each other as people," Marvin says, "and from that, our friendship grew. In order to survive, you don't talk about some things."
One day in 1997, Marvin went back to the interviewer before yet another parole hearing. Same questions, same answers, same people on the board. But a different outcome: release. Even today, Marvin doesn't know what changed, but clearly something did.
Three months later, in June 1997, he would be back in Hanover, living on the same stretch of Route 301 where he grew up, just yards away from the fire station and the courthouse.
Of course , Marvin, then 33, wasn't really free. The first 90 days, he wore an ankle monitor, and after that, he had to keep curfew and stay in weekly contact with his parole officer. As a registered sex offender, he was allowed no unsupervised contact with children. And, worst of all, no voluntary or paid firefighting. It killed him to drive past the station, headed either to his galvanizing job or, later, as a truck driver with a 50-mile radius restriction.
His mother had suggested moving into her house in eastern Henrico, where he could get a fresh start and where no one knew about his background, but Marvin had goals he wanted to accomplish — goals that he had set before and during his incarceration. Most of all, he wanted to readjust to life on the outside at his own pace.
Soon after his release, Marvin met a woman, Stacy, a waitress who helped him mend his finger when he hurt it while on the road for work. She had a little girl named Alexis, and in the next five years, she and Marvin would have two boys, JaQuan and RaVon.
The birth of his sons was an unexpected joy to Marvin, who once didn't think he'd have children. Like many dads, he shares his love of sports with the boys, ages 12 and 9, and often cooks with Alexis, who is 14 and whom he refers to as his daughter. The three children live most of the time with him and spend weekends with their mother. They've learned that a fireman and a policeman are your best friends, Marvin says, and Alexis even wants to be a firefighter.
In 2001 , four years after his release on parole, Marvin's case was under the gun at the Innocence Project's New York headquarters. It was the start of the new year, and the administration wondered if it would be worth the time and trouble to continue with Marvin's case. All of the law students assigned to the case over the past seven years were convinced of his innocence, but the fact remained that they hadn't found any DNA evidence to test, and it was assumed destroyed with the rape kit.
The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which takes on cases in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia, handles some cases where there is no DNA evidence, but the nationwide Innocence Project does not. One of the law students assigned to Marvin's case, Bridget Byrne, made a plea for a Hail-Mary attempt. Peter J. Neufeld, who founded the project with Barry Scheck, placed a call to Paul Ferrara, director of the Virginia Division of Forensic Science, a friend. He asked Ferrara to check Marvin's case file one more time.
Ferrara called the state department of records, where the file had been since 1990. An employee there picked up the file and sent it to Ferrara, who made an amazing discovery: segments of swabs taken from the rape victim, taped to the worksheets of forensic examiner Mary Jane Burton. This wasn't state protocol, but the forward-thinking Burton, who passed away in 1999, liked to keep portions of swabs attached to her files, in case they could be tested later with more sophisticated technology.
Word spread through the Virginia legal community, and a new Hanover commonwealth's attorney, Kirby Porter, took the unusual step of asking for the swabs to be tested. In April 2001, his request was shot down by the director of the state Department of Criminal Justice Services, former state delegate Joseph Benedetti, who said that testing the swabs would set an "unwelcome precedent" and delay the state's already overburdened forensic scientists. In May, however, a bill allowing the testing of DNA evidence more than three weeks after sentencing passed with the blessing of Gov. Jim Gilmore.
In cases where innocence was in question or if a sample were tested before DNA profiling was used, the 21-day rule was now a bit looser. Burton's swabs, which could establish Marvin's innocence, would be tested.
Marvin knew better than to get his hopes up, but he felt excited. Finding himself back in the old circuit court in December, except without Judge Taylor because he'd retired in 1999, Marvin had his lawyers and the commonwealth's attorney on his side, as well as the judge.
The old charges, the ones that made people call him a monster in 1982, were dropped, and Marvin was declared innocent.
"Not only you knew you were innocent, but society knows now that you were telling the truth from the very beginning," Marvin says. With his mother, sisters and the rest of the family in attendance, Marvin heard the judge say that he was considered innocent and that he would be taken off the sex offender list. He and his family fried a big turkey and invited over the lawyers from New York who'd been his champions since 1994.
Several months later, in August 2002, Gov. Mark Warner gave Marvin a full pardon, which left his record clean. Eight days before the pardon, Judge Taylor died at age 72.
Freedom and innocence — unquestioned and absolute — were once again part of Marvin's life, after living almost 20 years as a man condemned by society. He can take his children to Florida or fly across the country to tell law students his story. He's also able to be a volunteer firefighter, a goal he reached in 2008. Now he is district chief of the Hanover Courthouse Volunteer Fire Company and a full-time truck driver.
Marvin doesn't like to dwell on the past, but he knows that his case has helped other men, including Thomas Haynesworth, who wrote his own letter in 2003 to the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. They took his case and are now seeing it through.
One of Mary Jane Burton's old samples also cleared Thomas of a rape in Richmond, and other men have been exonerated with the help of her evidence. Thomas was released on parole earlier this year after serving 27 years. His motion for a writ of actual innocence for the other two rape convictions is going through the court of appeals.
Thomas wears an ankle monitor and has to be in his mother's ornately decorated East End home after 6 each night.
Still, he's out. The day of his release, Thomas ate barbecue chicken with Marvin and their mothers. Virginia's attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, apologized to Thomas in his office at the Capitol. Now he is working at the AG's office as an office technician.
In 2003, Pop Lincoln was tried and convicted of six charges related to the 1982 rape. He received three life sentences and 40 years. Marvin, who attended Lincoln's trial with his mother, says he doesn't hold a grudge against the jurors or the victim who testified against him in 1982. He is less forgiving of his trial lawyer, who declined to comment for this story.
On the stand during Lincoln's trial, the victim tried to say she was sorry to Marvin, but her testimony was cut off. Marvin says he knows she believed what she said at the time, and the jurors were doing their job.
"They are part of my life in their own special way," he says.
He and his ex-wife, Stephanie, remain close, but they now live in different states. Both have families.
Marvin says, amazingly, that he believes in the justice system, but he doesn't place all of his faith in the people who enforce it. They're people; they make mistakes. That's why he does what he can to improve the system, telling audiences his story, giving a voice to innocent people in prison and even on death row. To date, DNA evidence has exonerated 268 people nationwide, according to the Innocence Project, but many are waiting for their chance. "It's still an uphill battle," Marvin says, and not just in America.
This spring, at an Innocence Project convention in Cincinnati, Marvin listened to the first Japanese man who had been exonerated. He'd been in prison for 40 years. There's always someone worse off, Marvin says.
Now he just wants to enjoy his children and help people, whether he saves a memento from a burning house, listens to an exonerated man talk about adjusting to life outside, or opens a person's eyes to the possibility that not every convict has committed a crime.
"It goes back to knowing you helped someone else. You just do it," he says. "My family has always been able to be there for people in need."
NOTE: This article has been corrected since publication.