Black man exonerated 47 years after being found guilty of rape: ‘I can finally breathe’

Vietnam war veteran Leonard Mack had to live with the longest-standing wrongful conviction in US history

Maroosha Muzaffar
Wednesday 06 September 2023 09:05 BST
Leonard Mack breaks down while speaking with the media following his exoneration 47 years after he was found guilty of rape in 1976. Screengrab
Leonard Mack breaks down while speaking with the media following his exoneration 47 years after he was found guilty of rape in 1976. Screengrab (Eyewitness News ABC7NY / YouTube)

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The wrongful conviction of a Black man for rape was reversed nearly five decades later in what is said to be the longest-standing wrongful conviction in US history.

Leonard Mack, now 72 years old, was formally exonerated on Tuesday after being convicted of rape and two counts of criminal possession of a weapon in March 1976.

Thanks to new DNA evidence brought forward by the Innocence Project, in collaboration with the Westchester County District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit, Mr Mack has now been declared innocent of the crime.

The non-profit, along with the government agency, conducted new DNA testing on evidence from the crime scene as part of a post-conviction investigation.

This testing conclusively demonstrated Mr Mack to not be the perpetrator of the crime for which he was wrongfully convicted. “Mr Mack’s wrongful conviction is the longest to be overturned based on new DNA evidence known to the Innocence Project,” the non-profit said in an article on its website.

“Now the truth has come to light and I can finally breathe. I am finally free,” Mr Mack said.

The DNA profile generated from the evidence was entered into both the state and local DNA databases, leading to a positive match. Reports said the real assailant, identified through this database search, has confessed to committing the crime that occurred in New York.

“This exoneration confirms that wrongful convictions are not only harmful to the wrongly convicted but also make us all less safe,” Westchester County district attorney Miriam E Rocah said in a statement.

“Today, indisputable DNA evidence proves that Leonard Mack is innocent. Nearly five decades later, he finally has some measure of justice,” said Mary-Kathryn Smith, one of Mr Mack’s Innocence Project attorneys.

“Mr Mack’s resilience and strength is why this day has finally come.”

Mr Mack served seven and a half years in prison.

“Today has been a long time coming,” he was quoted as saying by the Innocence Project.

“I lost seven-and-a-half years of my life in prison for a crime I did not commit. I have lived with this injustice hanging over my head for almost 50 years.”

Mr Mack has been living in South Carolina with his wife for 21 years and is a Vietnam war veteran.

On 22 May 1975, in Greenburgh, New York, police stopped Mr Mack approximately two and a half hours after an incident in which two teenage girls were accosted as they walked home from school.

During the incident, one of the teenagers was raped, while the other managed to escape and sought help at a nearby school where a teacher promptly alerted the police. The attack took place in a predominantly white neighbourhood and the Greenburgh police department had issued a description of a suspect, specifying a Black male in his early twenties.

Despite having an appearance distinct from the suspect while driving through the neighbourhood at the time – including different clothing and an alibi to support his innocence – Mr Mack was apprehended and taken to a police station for questioning.

The Innocence Project said racial bias was a factor in the police zeroing in on Mr Mack as he “fit the description” of the suspect, despite substantial evidence to the contrary.

While just 13.6 per cent of the American population identify as Black, they account for 53 per cent of the 3,200 exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations according to its 2022 report called Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States.

Black Americans are seven times more likely than their white counterparts to be wrongfully convicted of serious crimes, the Innocence Project said.

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