RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) — A decision on a Hampton Roads man’s fight to clear his name is now in the hands of the justices of the Supreme Court of Virginia.
On Wednesday, Roy Watford’s attorney argued their case at the high court in Richmond.
This is a story 10 On Your Side has been covering since 2016. Watford says he was wrongfully convicted of the 1977 rape of a 12-year-old girl in Portsmouth. He argues that DNA testing excludes him as one of the girl’s three rapists.
Watford, who was 18 at the time, says he pleaded guilty because his grandfather was scared he’d spend the rest of life in prison if he was convicted in a trial.
Watford was sentenced to 10 years of probation and never served any jail time. But he had a felony conviction on his record. At an evidentiary hearing last year, his attorney argued in a Portsmouth court that Watford should be given a writ of innocence.
Justices had many questions for both Watford’s attorney Jon Sheldon and Senior Assistant Attorney General Alice Armstrong.
During his argument, justices asked Sheldon if the DNA sample collected for the case was that of the victim. To which he replied yes.
They wanted to know how Watford’s nickname ended up on a hospital document signed by a doctor after the victim was examined. Sheldon asked that they not rely on that document because the victim testified that she didn’t know his nickname. Sheldon explained that it’s not clear how Watford’s nickname would have been used.
Sheldon confirmed for the justices that the victim testified that she went to the house in 1977 looking for Roy Watford. That is how Sheldon believes his client was named in this case even though witnesses testified at the evidentiary hearing that he was not there that day.
According to the witnesses, Roy’s brother Evelio was at the home for an unknown period of time. However Sheldon made it clear that he didn’t know why Roy was named.
Sheldon also confirmed for the justices that Watford never confessed to a crime. He told the court that there was no evidence of guilt and so Watford wouldn’t have been found guilty in 1977 if the case had gone to trial.
One justice expressed concern about Roy Watford’s nickname being on the hospital document.
During her argument Armstrong admitted this was a “difficult and challenging” case but told the justices the case was no more difficult after the victim testified at the evidentiary hearing.
One justice asked Armstrong how Roy Watford was placed at the scene. To which she replied that the court must look at the guilty plea and doctor’s notes.
Another justice pointed out that “One must remain aware that he was given no time.”
Another justice clarified that there had been a conversation between the victim and her mother before the crime was reported to the police and before the victim was examined. Armstrong confirmed that fact.
Armstrong reminded the court that the victim pointed out the Watford house as a place where the suspects lived. However one justice made clear that only one of the three Watford brothers initially named as suspects lived there.
The chief justice asked Armstrong why they should give credence to the guilty plea. To which she replied that she can’t go back in time and that’s one of the challenges. Armstrong reminded the court that there was a preliminary hearing in this case and the victim must have identified Roy Watford.
A justice asked Armstrong based on the facts if she believed a reasonable jury would find Watford guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by clear and convincing evidence. To which she replied yes. She said the evidence does not exonerate him.
In his rebuttal, Sheldon told the court it was left with no evidence of Watford’s guilt. He said all 3 witnesses said Roy Watford wasn’t at the home when the crime was committed.
Sheldon said the original prosecutor in the case signed an affidavit supporting granting the petition. He said law enforcement also supports the writ for actual innocence.
“I think most of their questions were natural questions that arise from trying to figure out what exactly happened 40 years ago when, let’s remember the poor victim was 12 years old at the time,” Sheldon said after the hearing.
In the end both Roy Watford and Jon Shelton walked away feeling confident.
“I’m feeling great. I feel like things are going my way and I think we had a good case,” Watford said.
“I’m feeling good about the case. I think the court clearly grasped the facts and we’re confident they’re going to grant the writ of innocence for Mr. Watford,” Sheldon said.
It could be several weeks before justices hand down their decision.
Stay with WAVY.com for developments.