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Prosecutor supports inmate’s innocence claim

(AP) Richmond’s chief prosecutor joined other lawyers Wednesday in urging Gov. Terry McAuliffe to pardon a man who has spent 29 years in prison for an attempted rape that they say he didn’t commit.

Michael McAlister’s prison term ended in January. However, he remains locked up until a court decides whether he should be indefinitely held under Virginia’s civil commitment law for treatment as a violent sex offender. A probable cause hearing on that issue is set for May 18 in Richmond Circuit Court.

Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael N. Herring and McAlister’s lawyers are urging McAuliffe to grant an absolute pardon before then. Once a sex offender is committed to the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation, one of the keys to completing treatment and being discharged is admitting guilt — and McAlister has never wavered from his position that he is innocent.

Herring believes him.

“I am not the first person to conclude that Mr. McAlister is innocent and wrongly convicted,” Herring wrote in a declaration filed with the pardon petition, which he also signed. “In the history of my law practice, I am unaware of any other case where every law enforcement person who had a significant role to play in the conviction of an individual has voiced such strong doubt about his guilt.”

McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy acknowledged receipt of the petition and said it will be referred to the Virginia Parole Board for review and a recommendation. Board chairwoman Karen Brown said the petition has been fast-tracked with the May 18 hearing looming.

“It’s gone to the top of the list, and we are going to make every effort to have it done before that date,” Brown said in a telephone interview.

McAlister was convicted of the Feb. 23, 1986, abduction and attempted rape of a woman who was dragged at knifepoint from an apartment complex laundry room. The woman fought off the attacker and was able to get a partial look at his face by clawing at his stocking mask.

The victim identified McAlister as the attacker from “a highly suggestive photo array” that did not contain the picture of a known serial rapist whose previous attack on a police decoy in a laundry room of the same apartment complex had been thwarted, the petition says. That rapist, who was active in the Richmond area in 1986 and is now serving life in prison, “happened to bear an astonishing resemblance to Mr. McAlister” and is now believed to be the real perpetrator, according to the petition.

McAlister was initially identified as a suspect based on a police composite sketch. He was known to the local police because he had a record of indecent exposure and he lived only about four miles from the apartment complex where the attack occurred. When he was interviewed by detectives, McAlister agreed to allow them to take his picture wearing a plaid shirt similar to the one the attacker had worn. He was the only person in the photo lineup wearing that type of shirt, the petition says.

The victim picked McAlister out of the photo lineup and identified him in the courtroom at trial. The petition says the only trial evidence linking McAlister to the attack was the victim’s eyewitness testimony.

Now, the lead detective and the assistant prosecutor who put McAlister away back his exoneration.

“The sitting commonwealth’s attorney also now supports the claim, and given that, there’s no reason to keep him in prison any longer — and certainly no reason to keep him civilly committed the rest of his life,” said Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and another signer of the pardon petition. “The only person with the power to end this is Governor McAuliffe.”

— LARRY O’DELL, Associated Press


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