Sept. 5 (UPI) — The conviction of a man, who spent more than seven years in a New York state prison for a gruesome sexual assault of two high school girls in the 1970s, was thrown out Tuesday after DNA evidence proved he did not commit the crime.
“Today has been a long time coming,” Leonard Mack said Tuesday, which happened to be his 72nd birthday, in a statement celebrating his exoneration.
“I lost seven-and-a-half years of my life in prison for a crime I did not commit and I have lived with this injustice hanging over my head for almost 50 years. It changed the course of my life — everything from where I lived to my relationship with my family. I never lost hope that one day that I would be proven innocent.”
“Now the truth has come to light and I can finally breathe. I am finally free.”
Mack, a Vietnam War veteran, was convicted by a jury of first-degree rape and two counts of second-degree criminal possession of a weapon on March 29, 1976, for the brutal sexual assault of two 12th-grade Woodland High School students who were attacked by a man in a wooded area in Greenburgh, N.Y., on May 22, 1975.
The students were forced at gunpoint into the woods where they were tied up, gagged and blindfolded. One of them was raped twice. And the perpetrator threatened the students as he left them at the scene.
After breaking free, the students reported the crime to police. Less than three hours later, Mack was pulled over in a traffic stop and was informed he looked like the suspect despite his outfit not matching the description police were given by the victims. Mack also said that during the attack, he was at the home of his girlfriend, who corroborated his statement.
After his conviction the following year, he was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison. During his incarceration he filed multiple challenges which were opposed at that time by the Westchester District Attorney’s Office and denied by the courts.
His exoneration follows the Innocent Project, which fights to prove wrongful convictions, requesting the Westchester District Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Review Unit last year to review his case.
According to the Innocent Project, it asked the Conviction Review Unit for assistance with locating and testing biological evidence from the case, which produced cuttings of one of the victim’s underwear that contained semen, and through the use of modern DNA testing methods proved that Mack was not its source.
Uploading the DNA profile to the state and local DNA databases also produced a match — a person who had been convicted of a burglary and rape that was committed in Queens two weeks after the two high school students were attacked and of a Greenburgh sex crime in 2004.
On Aug. 31, Westchester County District Attorney Miriam Rocah announced that she had asked to court to vacate Mack’s conviction.
“This exoneration confirms that wrongful convictions are not only harmful to the wrongly convicted but also make us all less safe,” Rocah said in a statement Tuesday.
According to the Innocence Project, Mack’s wrongful conviction is the longest to be overturned based on new DNA evidence.
“Today, indisputable DNA evidence proves that Leonard Mack is innocent,” Mary-Kathryn Smith, one of Mack’s Innocence Project attorneys, said in a statement. “Nearly five decades later, he finally has some measure of justice.
“Mack’s resilience and strength is why this day has finally come.”
The Westchester District Attorney’s Office said the man whose DNA matched that recovered from the scene in 1975 has confessed to the crime and, though the statute of limitations bars him from being prosecuted for it, the unnamed suspect is currently being prosecuted for failing to register as a sex offender related to the 2004 sex crime conviction.
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