A New York man was officially exonerated on Tuesday, 47 years after he was found guilty of rape in 1976— the longest-standing wrongful conviction to be overturned based on new DNA evidence in U.S. history, according to the Innocence Project.
A DNA hit “conclusively excluded” Leonard Mack, 72, as the perpetrator, Westchester County District Attorney Miriam E. Rocah said in a statement. Investigators in the Conviction Review identified a convicted sex offender after they ran the DNA through databases, and the DA’s office said the individual has now confessed to the rape.
“This exoneration confirms that wrongful convictions are not only harmful to the wrongly convicted but also make us all less safe,” Rocah said.
Mack, who served seven and half years in prison for the crime, said, “I never lost hope that one day that I would be proven innocent.”
According to the DA’s office, on May 22, 1975, two 12th-grade girls were forced into the woods at gunpoint and tied up, gagged, and blinded before one of the victims was raped twice. The second girl escaped and rushed to a local school, where a teacher phoned the police. The Greenburgh Police Department has obtained a search warrant for a Black man in his early twenties.
Mack, who is Black, was driving through the neighborhood at the time, and even though he was wearing different clothes than the suspect and had an alibi, he was brought into the police station.
According to the Innocence Project, racial bias played a role in police focusing on Mack and not examining other potential suspects. Researchers discovered in a 2022 National Registry of Exonerations report that Black Americans are more than seven times more likely than White Americans to be convicted of a severe crime and later exonerated. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, exonerations of Black people for murder convictions are 22% more likely to be associated with police misconduct.
The Innocence Project also highlighted that problematic identification procedures and eyewitness misidentification played a significant role in Mack’s wrongful conviction. Eyewitness misidentification is a leading cause of wrongful convictions in the United States. Prosecutors in Mack’s case presented flawed forensic testimony, which contributed to his wrongful conviction. The medical examiner’s findings did not match Mack and were not presented at trial.
In 2022, the Innocence Project approached the district attorney’s office to re-examine the case. Modern DNA testing of the victim’s underwear cuttings was crucial in uncovering the truth and exonerating Mack.
Mack, who has been living in South Carolina with his wife for 21 years, said, “Now the truth has come to light, and I can finally breathe. I am finally free.”