Exonerations Resulting from NIJ Postconviction DNA Testing Funding

The Justice for All Act of 2004 authorized the establishment of the Kirk Bloodsworth Postconviction DNA Testing Grant Program.

This competitive grant program, Postconviction Testing of DNA Evidence, provides funding to states to help defray the costs associated with postconviction DNA testing. States may use funds in cases involving violent felony offenses (as defined by state law) in which actual innocence might be demonstrated. Funds may be used to review the cases and to locate and analyze biological evidence associated with them.
The goals of the program are to:

  1. Review appropriate postconviction cases to identify those in which DNA testing could prove the actual innocence of a person convicted of a violent felony offense(s) as defined by state law.
  2. Locate biological evidence associated with such postconviction cases.
  3. Perform DNA analysis of appropriate biological evidence.

Though exonerations are not the sole measure of program success, 26 exonerations have been achieved through DNA testing to date as a result of NIJ's funding and the hard work of the grantees. Two additional exonerations attributed to the program were byproducts rather than direct results of NIJ-funded DNA testing. See below for information about each of the exonerations.

Exonerations Resulting From the Postconviction DNA Testing Assistance Program
Awardee JurisdictionExoneree and Description
Arizona Criminal Justice Commission 
Award No.: 2008-DN-BX-K145
Exoneree: John Watkins
On Dec. 16, 2010, John Watkins was released from custody after serving seven and a half years in prison for a sexual assault he did not commit. No DNA testing was performed at the time of Mr. Watkins' trial in 2003 because no semen or sperm was detected on the rape kit items. Mr. Watkins accepted a plea offer of 14 years for the sexual assault and another nonviolent felony to avoid a potential life in prison sentence.

Using NIJ funds awarded to the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, the Arizona Justice Project and Arizona Attorney General's Office filed a joint motion for Y-STR DNA testing. The DNA results conclusively excluded Mr. Watkins as the donor of the male DNA found on the evidence items.​
Attorney General, Colorado Award No.: 2009-DN-BX-K242 Exoneree: Robert Dewey
On May 1, 2012, Robert Dewey was released from prison after serving nearly 18 years for a rape and murder he did not commit. In 1996, Mr. Dewey was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He was exonerated as a result of new DNA testing by Colorado’s Justice Review Project, which was supported through funding provided to the Colorado Attorney General by NIJ.
California Emergency Management Agency:  
Award Nos.: 2014-DY-BX-K002, 2013-DY-BX-K003, 2011-DY-BX-K001, 2009-DY-BX-K240
Exoneree: Luis Vargas
On Nov. 23, 2015, Luis Vargas was exonerated after spending 16 years in prison for three sexual assaults that DNA evidence recently revealed he didn’t commit. Vargas, now 46, was convicted on eye-witness testimony in 1999 and sentenced to 55 years in jail. DNA testing done at the request of the California Innocence Project showed that the assaults were committed by the so-called “Teardrop Rapist,” who is known for a tattoo under his eye in the shape of a teardrop, and has never been caught. Witnesses linked Vargas to the crime because he had a similar tattoo. In 2012, at Vargas’ urging, the Project requested DNA testing of evidence that had not be examined in the original investigation. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office agreed to the testing, and the results showed the Teardrop Rapist as the perpetrator. Based on the DNA results, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Ryan overturned the conviction. At the time of his sentencing in 1999, Vargas told the court he was concerned that the individual who “really did these crimes might really be raping someone out there.” The Teardrop Rapist is suspected of approximately 35 sexual assaults in the Los Angeles area.

Exoneree: Michael Hanline
Michael Hanline was found guilty of murder after a 2-year trial (1976–78) in California. At that time, DNA-testing of physical evidence did not exist. He continued to maintain his innocence, and, approximately 16 years ago, the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law started working on his case. After filing a "1405" to secure any evidence that may still exist, the Innocence Project secured the agreement of the District Attorney (who was working in a new Conviction Integrity Unit) that if any DNA profile could be lifted off the evidence after all these years, it would be definitive. DNA analysis — including using new technologies available in the last couple few years — showed that Me. Hanline was not the source of the DNA on the key evidence. He was released from prison on Nov. 24, 2014, after serving 36 years, making him the longest-serving wrongfully convicted person in California history.

Uriah Courtney
Uriah Courtney spent eight years in prison after being convicted of a November 2004 sexual assault. Mr. Courtney had been identified by the victim, and his stepfather’s truck resembled the truck driven by the perpetrator. On June 23, 2013, Mr. Courtney was released from prison and the charges were formally dismissed.

Using funds from NIJ, the California Innocence Project began to investigate Mr. Courtney’s case in the fall of 2010. DNA testing on the evidence at the time of Mr. Courtney’s conviction had not yielded conclusive results. The victim’s clothing was submitted for re-examination and a male profile was developed that did not match Mr. Courtney. The profile was uploaded to C ODIS and matched a convicted offender who lived 3 miles from the crime scene.

Exoneree: Johnny Williams
On March 8, 2013, the Santa Clara University School of Law’s Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) and the California DNA Project (CDP), which was created with NIJ grant funding, announced that the Alameda County Superior Court had overturned the conviction of Johnny Williams, after 14 years, for sex crimes against a child. The DNA conclusively excluded Mr. Williams as the perpetrator.

In 2012, NCIP and CDP, with cooperation from the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, had the victim’s t-shirt retested. The testing yielded a complete male DNA profile that excluded Mr. Williams as the perpetrator. Mr. Williams is the 2nd innocent person that NCIP exonerated in 2013 and the 16th since its creation in 2001. ​
Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet
Award No.: 2008-DN-BX-K184
Exoneree: Kerry Porter
On December 19, 2011, Kerry Porter was released from prison after serving 13 years for a murder he did not commit. Mr. Porter was sentenced to 60 years for the 1996 shooting death of his ex-girlfriend’s husband despite there being no physical evidence linking Mr. Porter to the crime.

DNA testing was not readily available and reliable at the time of Mr. Porter’s trial, so the Kentucky Innocence Project, which receives funding from NIJ through the award to the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, asked for testing to be completed on a homemade silencer found at the crime scene. In 2011, DNA analysts were able to identify a male and female DNA profile from the silencer. Mr. Porter’s DNA was excluded as being a contributor.
Louisiana Department of Justice
Award No: 2009-DN-BX-K245
Exoneree: Darrin Hill                  
The Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO) reported that on April 27, 2012, Darrin Hill was freed and exonerated after being wrongly confined for 20 years at a state mental health hospital in Jackson, La. for a 1992 abduction and rape. Recent DNA testing performed on the rape kit from the crime shows that Mr. Hill was not the man who raped the victim in the case.

Mr. Hill is the first person freed as a result of the NIJ grant secured by IPNO. Without this grant, he would have likely never been freed as Louisiana has no provision for DNA testing on behalf of persons committed to mental health facilities. In fact, IPNO’s research suggests this is the first case ever in which a person so committed has been freed due to proof of innocence.
State of North Carolina, Innocence Inquiry Commission
Award Nos.: 2009-DN-BX-K247, 2012-DY-BX-K001 
Exoneree: Henry McCollum
Exoneree: Leon Brown
On Sept. 3, 2014, Henry McCollum and his half-brother, Leon Brown, were released from custody after serving 31 years in prison for a murder and sexual assault they did not commit. They were arrested in 1983 for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie, whose body was found in a soybean field in Red Springs, North Carolina. After questioning by police, McCollum and Brown, then ages 19 and 15 respectively, signed confessions written by law enforcement officers. Both were convicted and sentenced to death, but were later retried in separate trials. McCollum was again sentenced to death, while Brown was sentenced to life in prison.

In 2010, noting inconsistencies in the confessions, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission began a review of the case under NIJ’s Postconviction Testing Assistance Program. Commission investigators found that less than a month after Buie’s death, a similar murder occurred in Red Springs. The man convicted of that crime, Roscoe Artis, denied any knowledge of the Buie murder. Through a program administered by the National institute of Justice – the research and development arm of the Department of Justice – DNA testing was performed on items of evidence in the Buie case resulting in a match to Artis’ DNA found on a cigarette butt from the crime scene. Artis eventually said he had physical contact with Buie on the day of the murder but denied involvement in her killing. The commission presented the DNA evidence, statements by Artis, and other evidence to the North Carolina Superior Court; and the judge dismissed the convictions of McCollum and Brown.

Exoneree: Kenneth Kagonyera
Exoneree: Robert Wilcoxson                  
The Innocence Inquiry Commission reported that on Sept. 22, 2011, Kenneth Kagonyera and Robert Wilcoxson were freed and found innocent of any involvement in the 2000 murder of Walter Bowman. The two men maintained their innocence throughout their incarceration, but had pled guilty to second-degree murder charges to avoid the death penalty or life in prison. In 2003, a federal inmate confessed to the homicide and named two accomplices. DNA from the crime scene was tested and when the DNA profile generated was uploaded to CODIS, it resulted in a match to one of the named accomplices and excluded both Mr. Kagonyera and Mr. Wilcoxson.

Exoneree: Joseph Sledge
On Jan. 23, 2015, Joseph Sledge was released from custody after serving 37 years in prison for a double murder he did not commit. In his second trial in 1978, the first having ended in a hung jury, Mr. Sledge was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder for the stabbing murders of Josephine Davis and her daughter, Aileen. He was arrested in early 1978 after two jailhouse informants said Mr. Sledge told them he committed the crimes.

Mr. Sledge consistently claimed his innocence over the decades he was incarcerated. Through the National Institute of Justice’s Post-conviction Testing of DNA Evidence grant program, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission began a review of the case in May 2013. After locating some misplaced physical evidence, the commission undertook extensive DNA testing. Nine hairs found on one of the victims, attributed to Mr. Sledge based on visual comparisons in the 1978 trial, were subjected to mitochondrial DNA testing, and Mr. Sledge was excluded. Tests on male DNA found on linoleum and from latent prints from the crime scene also excluded Mr. Sledge as a contributor. A three-judge panel reviewed the commission’s findings and said Mr. Sledge had proven by clear and convincing evidence that he was innocent of the murders.

Exoneree: Edward McInnis
On Aug. 10, 2015, Edward McInnis was released from custody after being exonerated for the 1988 rape of an 81-year-old woman in Laurinburg, North Carolina. McInnis, who pleaded guilty to the crime without his attorney present during his third lengthy interview by police, was sentenced to life plus 20 years. He maintained his innocence throughout much of his 27 years in prison and applied in 2014 to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, which began investigating his case. In March, 2015, the district attorney requested a new search for physical evidence from the case. DNA swabs taken at the time of the rape were discovered by Laurinburg Police Chief Darwin Williams, and testing excluded McInnis as the source of the unidentified male DNA found on the swabs. Based on the new DNA evidence, Scotland County District Attorney Kristy Newton put forward a motion to dismiss the charges against McInnis, which was granted by Superior Court Judge Tanya Wallace. Newton said she will try to determine who actually committed the crime. “It’s been a long journey for me,” McInnis said after his release. “I’ve been praying for this day.”
Texas Office of the Governor, Criminal Justice Division Award No.: 2008-DN-BX-K169 Exoneree: Johnny Pinchback
On May 12, 2011, the Innocence Project of Texas, through funding provided to the Texas Office of the Governor by NIJ, secured the release of Johnny Pinchback. Mr. Pinchback was incarcerated for more than 26 years for two aggravated sexual assaults that he did not commit. He was proven innocent via the DNA testing of rape kit evidence obtained from one of the victims shortly after her assault.
Virginia Department of Forensic Science
Award No.: 2008-DN-BX-K128

Program Background: The Virginia DFS Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program has been unquestionably unique. NIJ funds were immediately used in targeted and specific ways for DNA testing and laboratory reporting without the need for searching for cases in which testable evidence remained. Their approach — to "test all available" evidence — demonstrated a unique and extraordinary model for postconviction DNA testing.

DFS used department resources to analyze and issue Certificates of Analysis in 2013 for the 19 untested cases known to meet the case criteria established under the program. The resulting seven exonerations were a direct outcome of activities funded by this award. Since the award, the Virginia Supreme Court has issued four writs of actual innocence based on the results of DNA testing performed under the program.
Exonerees: Thomas Edward Haynesworth
Thomas Edward Haynesworth was arrested for rape in February 1984 and subsequently identified by five women as their assailant in a series of sexual assaults in Richmond, Va. and neighboring Henrico County. He was convicted in three attacks and acquitted in one; the remaining case was not prosecuted.

Virginia DFS tested biological evidence preserved in a laboratory case file related to one of the Richmond sexual assaults. The results eliminated Mr. Haynesworth as the source of DNA profiles identified on that evidence and indicated the presence of DNA consistent with the profile of another convicted rapist. In September 2009, Mr. Haynesworth became the first person exonerated by the Virginia Supreme Court in a writ of actual innocence based on new DNA evidence in the case.

Exoneree: Calvin Wayne Cunningham
In May 1981, Calvin Wayne Cunningham was convicted of rape in Newport News, Va. DNA testing completed in 2010 eliminated Mr. Cunningham as a contributor of the DNA profiles found on evidence preserved in the forensic laboratory case file. On April 12, 2011, Mr. Cunningham was exonerated by the Virginia Supreme Court, which granted his petition for a writ of actual innocence.

Exoneree: Phillip Thurman
In December 2005, Phillip Thurman was granted a full pardon by the Governor of Virginia. Mr. Thurman was wrongfully convicted of rape, abduction and assault in a 1984 case. The testing of evidence in Mr. Thurman’s case was part of the preliminary study that gave rise to the Virginia Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program, which was eventually funded by this award.
DNA testing eliminated Mr. Thurman as a contributor of the DNA profile developed from the original evidence. When the DNA profile was searched against the Virginia DNA Databank, it matched the profile of a known convicted felon not previously associated with the case.

Exoneree: Willie Davidson
In December 2005, Willie Davidson was granted a full pardon by the Governor of Virginia. Mr. Davidson was wrongfully convicted of rape in 1980. The testing of evidence in Mr. Davidson’s case was part of the preliminary study that gave rise to the Virginia Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program, which was eventually funded by this award. Under procedures in place at the time of his pardon, DFS records associated with Mr. Davidson’s case were expunged.

Exoneree: Victor Burnette
In April 2009, Victor Burnette was granted a full pardon by the Governor of Virginia. Mr. Burnette was wrongfully convicted of rape in 1979. The testing of evidence in Mr. Burnette’s case was part of the preliminary study that gave rise to the Virginia Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program, which was eventually funded by this award.

DNA testing of original evidence and a known buccal sample submitted by Mr. Burnette eliminated him as a contributor of the DNA profile developed from the original evidence. Mr. Burnette was notified by DFS of his postconviction testing results during an early phase of the Notification Project associated with this Program.

Exoneree: Bennet Barbour
More than 30 years after Bennett Barbour was convicted of raping a female William & Mary student, the Virginia DFS used NIJ funding to develop a DNA profile from the original evidence in the case. The profile matched a convicted felon in Virginia’s DNA Databank. On May 24, 2012, the Supreme Court of Virginia issued a writ of actual innocence, formally clearing Mr. Barbour, who had served four and a half years in prison, of the rape.

Exoneree: Gary Diamond
In March 2013, the Virginia Supreme Court granted Gary Diamond a writ of actual innocence. Mr. Diamond was wrongfully convicted of abduction in a 1976 case and spent five years in prison before being released on parole. Virginia DFS’s DNA testing of the original evidence eliminated Mr. Diamond as a contributor to the DNA profiles developed. Mr. Diamond was successfully located and notified by DFS of his postconviction testing results as part of the Notification Project associated with this Program.
Washington Department of Commerce
Award No.: 2008-DN-BX-K127
Exoneree: Larry Davis
Exoneree: Alan Northrop
On July 14, 2010, Larry Davis and Alan Northrop were exonerated after serving 17 years in prison. Mr. Northrop and Mr. Davis were convicted of sexually assaulting a woman in 1993 in La Center, Washington.

The Innocence Project NW Clinic was granted a request to test crime scene evidence using new DNA technology. The Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory, using NIJ funding, conducted the DNA testing from some samples in the cases and outsourced other samples to a private laboratory. These tests excluded Mr. Northrop and Mr. Davis as contributors of the DNA profiles found on the victim.
Washington State Patrol 
Award No.: 2010-DY-BX-K404
Exoneree: Jeramie R. Davis
The Seattle-based Innocence Project Northwest (IPNW) reported that Jeramie R. Davis was exonerated in April 2013. Mr. Davis, whose 2007 Spokane County murder conviction had been under review for additional postconviction DNA testing by the IPNW, was exonerated after DNA evidence was resubmitted to testing and resulted in a match to a convicted felon. The IPNW, working with pro bono counsel, secured Mr. Davis’ release from a 40-year prison sentence when the state dismissed the murder charge against him. ​
Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance
Award No.: 2011-DY-BX-K006​
Exoneree: Joseph Frey
On July 12, 2013, the Winnebago County Circuit Court judge overturned Joseph Frey’s 1994 conviction for a 1991 Oshkosh rape. Mr. Frey was released after serving nearly 20 years of a 102-year sentence. His conviction was based on unreliable witness testimony. At the request of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, new DNA testing was performed on evidence found at the crime scene. The results identified another male who, after the 1991 attack, committed another sexual assault in Fond du Lac. The real perpetrator has since died. ​
Non-DNA Exoneration
Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet
Award No.: 2008-DN-BX-K184
Exoneree: Michael VonAllmen
Michael VonAllmen served 11 years of a 35-year sentence for rape, sodomy and robbery of a 22-year old woman. After reading an article discussing the receipt of Postconviction DNA Testing Assistance funds by the Kentucky Innocence Project (through the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet), Mr. VonAllmen contacted the Kentucky Innocence Project for assistance, despite the fact that he had been on parole for nearly 10 years.

The DNA analysis produced inconclusive results. However, during the reinvestigation, the Kentucky Innocence Project discovered new evidence supporting Mr. VonAllmen’s claim of innocence. A Jefferson County judge vacated Mr. VonAllmen’s conviction, stating that the evidence shows he did not commit the crimes.
State of North Carolina, Innocence Inquiry Commission
Award No.: 2009-DN-BX-K247
Exoneree: Willie Grimes
In October 2012, a three-member judicial panel officially declared Willie Grimes innocent. Mr. Grimes had spent more than 24 years in prison after being convicted of the 1987 sexual assault and kidnapping of a 69-year-old woman. He had been released on parole in May 2012.

North Carolina used NIJ funds to review Mr. Grimes’ case, but the biological evidence used to convict Mr. Grimes was presumed destroyed or lost. The North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence and the state’s Innocence Inquiry Commission compelled the local police department to locate the files and evidence. Though the department did not find the biological evidence, it did find a latent fingerprint card containing prints from a surface in the victim’s kitchen that the assailant was known to have touched. The fingerprints did not match Mr. Grimes’, but this evidence had been withheld until the trial. In 2011, the fingerprints were finally uploaded to the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, where they hit on the case’s original suspect.
Date Modified: December 16, 2015