Victor "Bo" Burnette served 8 years in prison for a 1979 rape he did not commit. A DNA test cleared Burnette, 56, of the crime, over two decades after having been paroled in Virginia.
A rape of a 19-year-old woman occurred in Richmond, Virginia in 1979: the woman woke up on the night on August 3rd to a man having intercourse with her. She pushed him off of her, and when he moved towards the door, she testified that she “got a very good look at him.” The next day, she spotted Victor Burnette on her street and believed he was the rapist.
It was this eyewitness identification, in conjunction with the testimony of state forensic serologist Mary Jane Burton, that convicted Burnette. Burton testified that a hair found at the scene “was consistent” with Burnette’s – meaning that it was merely similar – and that spermatozoa was detected at the scene. Forensic testing at the time was not sophisticated enough to verify whether or not the DNA found on the scene belonged to Burnette. Burnette, despite having told the jury that he was home that evening caring for his ill grandmother, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the rape and burglary.
After being paroled in 1987, Burnette sought out DNA testing. He was told that the forensic evidence from his case had been destroyed – “If you’re found guilty, your stuff is destroyed,” he recalls hearing. As a convicted rapist, Burnette was unable to secure a job. He taught himself carpentry, and started his own one-man home improvement company (that he still runs today), living a somewhat reclusive life.
Then one morning in December 2005, Burnette read an article in The Richmond Times-Dispatch, detailing how Julius Earl Ruffin and Arthur Whitfield were cleared of their convictions through DNA evidence. Both of these cases involved Mary Jane Burton, the forensic scientist who testified against him: she had died in 1999, and left behind her files, where she had kept hundreds of small samples of evidence for her own records – there was no indicated reason why. Those cases were the catalysts for what is now the Virginia Old Case Testing Program.
Burnette, riding his bike over to the lab each day, pleaded with lab workers to again look for evidence in his now 26-year-old file. The lab workers told him the test results had been forwarded to a Richmond prosecutor. He persuaded the prosecutor to give him the results over the phone: The evidence "eliminated" Burnette as a "contributor" to the DNA sample taken from the victim's rape kit. "I knew what they had to be, but I just wanted to hear it from somebody. And she said, 'It wasn't you.' And it was great news."
Though the victim says she does not believe the results, two Virginia Department of Forensic Science reports from 2006 confirmed that Burnette was “eliminated as a contributor” of the evidence.
After receiving the test results, Burnette applied for a pardon from Governor Tim Kaine. The pardon application was finally granted on April 8, 2009. Burnette became the sixth person to be exonerated from the forensic evidence that Burton kept, and the first actual exoneration under the Old Case Testing Program.
To watch Victor speak about his case at the 2009 MAIP Awards Luncheon, click here