Wrongly jailed for 20 years, man to go free
Father of 2 will finally go free after wrongful rape conviction.
Saturday, July 30, 2005

Almost 20 years after his imprisonment for an early-morning rape in the cafeteria of an East End hospital, a Homewood man will be freed Monday because DNA testing proved he did not commit the crime.

Thomas Doswell
Thomas Doswell, now 44, who has professed his innocence since the victim and another witness identified him just hours after the 1986 attack, will walk free on a motion by the Allegheny County district attorney, who concedes the forensic tests prove police got the wrong man.

The action will cap a flurry of legal activity over the past 10 days that started when DNA tests, which the prosecutor had initially fought against, excluded Doswell as the man who raped a 48-year-old woman at the former Forbes Hospital on Frankstown Road.

Doswell, who was 25 and the father of two young children when he was sentenced to 13 to 26 years in prison, has been denied parole four times over the past eight years because he refused to take responsibility for the crime. Had the DNA testing not exculpated him, he would not have been eligible for release until about 2012. His children are now adults.

After checking with the victim, the district attorney's office vacated the sentence last Monday. Doswell was brought this week from the State Correctional Institution Forest County to the Allegheny County Jail, where he will stay until a hearing at 11:30 a.m. Monday before Common Pleas Judge John A. Zottola.

The legal work to implement the DNA testing was done by the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City. Through DNA testing, it has successfully exonerated more than 160 wrongfully convicted people.

"These tests confirmed what Mr. Doswell has been saying from the moment he was charged, that he was innocent and that this was a misidentification brought about by police officers who may have engaged in misconduct," said Colin Starger of the Innocence Project.

Innocence Project officials believe the rape victim and a witness identified Doswell in 1986 because his photo was the only one in an eight-person array that had a large "R" under the photo, a police practice at the time for identifying people previously charged with rape.

After he was convicted of the attack based on the witness identifications, Doswell filed several unsuccessful appeals, claiming the identification was not based on the witnesses' ability to recall him, but on the suggestive letter under his picture, which was there because a former girlfriend had accused him of raping her, a charge of which he was acquitted.

During almost 20 years of imprisonment, he cited several other discrepancies in the witness identifications. The victim said her attacker had a beard, but Doswell only had a mustache. A former employee of the Pittsburgh Housing Authority, he also said he was wearing a neck brace from a work-related injury at the time, which limited his ability to run.

"The Doswell family has been telling me for 15 years that he was innocent, that he was railroaded. They never let it rest," said Pittsburgh attorney James E. DePasquale, who helped put together a motion for the DNA testing. "Now it's proven," he said.

Until Doswell sent a letter to the Innocence Project, he could not get court permission to test the semen specimens taken after the rape, tests that can cost as much as $1,000 per item.

Prosecutors initially argued that Doswell was not eligible for the testing, but a judge ordered it.

Assistant Chief William Mullen of the Pittsburgh Police Bureau said the practice of marking mug shots of rape suspects with the letter "R" was halted "a long, long time ago." He said detectives today do not allow witnesses to see identification cards on mug shots when they are used in photo arrays.

"I feel bad for that man," Mullen said, "but I do not believe that could happen today."

In response to the Post-Gazette series "Sight Unseen" last May about faulty witness identifications, Mullen said the city is redoing its policies to bring its witness identification procedures in line with national standards. The new guidelines say that the person who does the investigation and has identified suspects should not put together or present photo lineups to witnesses. Few area police departments use the standards.

In the Doswell case, the investigating officer presented the photos to the victim.

Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Cardozo Innocence Project, said the most important reform is to require that the officer who runs the identification procedure not know who the suspect is and who the others in the photo lineup are.

"That eliminates the possibility of officers ... knowingly or unknowingly influencing the witness identification. Had that simple control been used in this case, a father of two young children would not have been torn from his family almost 20 years ago," he said.

The case against Doswell started at 5:45 a.m. on March 13, 1986, when a female service worker at Forbes Hospital, now Forbes Nursing Center and Hospice, was followed into the hospital cafeteria by a man who locked the doors behind him, tossed her on the floor, threatened to kill her and raped her.

About 15 minutes later, another employee heard a commotion and started banging on the locked door, causing the assailant to flee, eluding others who gave chase.

The victim was taken to Shadyside Hospital, where physical evidence of the rape was taken. At the trial 19 years ago, existing testing methods were not advanced enough to exclude anyone as the source of the semen, leaving the witness testimony as the only evidence against Doswell.

"The Innocence Project is grateful for the district attorney's swift reaction to the DNA results. Their cooperation should be a model for other prosecutors throughout the country," Neufeld said.

First published on July 30, 2005 at 12:00 am
Post-Gazette staff writer Bill Moushey is director of the Innocence Institute of Point Park University, which uses investigative reporting curricula to investigate claims of wrongful convictions. He can be reached at 412-392-3416.
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