Strand of Doubt: Could technology overturn a rape conviction?

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) -- Virginia’s Innocence Project at the University of Virginia is still waiting to hear if a California lab can find DNA in evidence from a 1990 Virginia Beach rape.

"This was something that was unheard of in the time frame for us in our city," said Virginia Beach Sergeant Shawn Hoffman.

It was August 8, 1990. A 10-year-old girl was on her bike in a park in the Timberblake area when a stranger ran up and knocked her down. The attack didn't stop there. The man told the girl if she screamed, he would kill her.  She was punched repeatedly and raped.

"He basically left her for dead," Hoffman added.police-sketch

The girl was able to stumble to a nearby home for help. Soon after, an artist created sketch from the young girl's memory. It was given out to detectives who went looking for the suspect.

"I was literally sitting there and I had the sketch," Hoffman said. "I looked over and I said, 'That's him. That's Darnell Phillips.'"

Hoffman was first to talk with Phillips on the street. Phillips was only 17-years-old at the time. He said he was in the area at the time of the sexual assault, hanging out with a friend.

"I really didn't know what to think," Phillips said. "By my conscience, I had a really clean conscience, because I knew I didn't commit any crimes."

Two detectives interviewed Phillips for hours, but he never wavered. Hoffman then took his turn. It was only a matter of minutes before he says he got a confession.

"I told him he made a mistake at that particular time frame," Hoffman said. "It wasn't his intent to do what he did, it was a terrible mistake, and he was shaking his head up and down."

Phillips claims his encounter with Hoffman went differently.

Darnell Phillips
Darnell Phillips

"He came immediately into the room accusing me, called me an animal, telling me, 'You know you did this,'" Phillips said. "I said, 'I didn't do anything.'"

The case went to trial a year later. Prosecutors relied heavily on the confession and a single hair, which at the time was thought to be from Phillips. The young girl testified that the person in photos looked like Phillips, though she wasn't sure. She did recognize the Chicago Bulls hat Phillips was wearing at the time of his arrest.

"I was found guilty and sentenced to 100 years," Phillips said. "I turned to the judge and I remember saying to the judge, 'I didn't do it.'"

Phillips is currently serving his time the Greensville Correctional Center. 26 years later, there is renewed interest in his case.

"I found it pretty incredible that this case ever got to trial," said Jenny Givens from Virginia’s Innocence Project.

Attorneys from Virginia's Innocence Project, who look at potential wrongful convictions, believe the wrong man has been behind bars all this time.

"The microscopic hair comparison that was used at trial was bad science," Givens said. "It has a suspicious confession and it had no identification by the witness prior to trial."

In the 1991 trial, an expert testified the single hair found on the young girl was put under a microscope and appeared similar to Phillips' hair. 10 years later, the hair was tested for DNA. The results came back -- and it didn't belong to Phillips.

"Once the only physical link that ever connected him to this attack was undermined, it was really difficult to see why a court wouldn't grant relief," Givens said.

Phillips' attorney also points to the confession. There was no video or audio proof, no signed affidavit from Phillips and no notes from Hoffman. He was only one other than Phillips in the room at the time.

"The Commonwealth continued to rely on this confession that Darnell made to Detective Hoffman, despite the fact that there really was no evidence of the confession other than Detective Hoffman's word," Givens added. "If you look at the circumstances around the confession, it should raise questions."

"I'm sure if he is in that position, being locked up for the rest of his life... Nothing ventured, nothing gained on his part," Hoffman said.

Over the last 26 years, there has been hearing after hearing. In 2015, the Innocence Project requested evidence from the victim be sent to several labs in California. Phillips' attorneys say those labs can look for DNA in ways the Virginia Department of Forensics cannot. So far, two labs have come back with nothing. A third is looking at the evidence now.

If the lab comes back with nothing, the only thing Phillips’ attorneys could do is ask for a pardon from the governor’s office.

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