LAURINBURG — Sentenced in 1988 to spend the rest of his life behind bars, Edward Charles McInnis walked out of the Scotland County Courthouse on Monday a free man.
McInnis’ appeal in March to the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission ultimately led to the discovery of DNA evidence that cleared him of the brutal rape of an 81-year-old Laurinburg educator.
McInnis said that he has made appeals to various agencies on and off for the last 15 years in hopes of having his case and the available evidence reviewed.
“I kept running into roadblocks and stuff like that, but I just kept on writing,” the 53-year-old said. “It’s been a long journey for me — I’ve been praying for this day, though I’m glad it’s over with.”
The crime that McInnis was accused of took place in the early hours of Feb. 23, 1988, when someone broke into the victim’s Prince Street home, accosted her from behind, and dragged her into the bedroom and raped her on the floor.
The victim suffered facial abrasions and a stab wound to the shoulder with a letter opener. Before the rapist left, he stole money from the woman’s pocketbook.
The victim was interviewed three times, according investigation files retained by the Laurinburg Police Department, each time describing a similar version of events.
She provided a general description of her attacker, who in her dark home she saw only by a penlight he carried. After he dragged her into the bedroom, the perpetrator covered her face with her own comforter.
McInnis, who had a history of run ins with the law, including a prior conviction for indecent exposure, was offered as a suspect by the community. He was 26 at the time.
During the subsequent investigation, an informant — who was never named in police files — claimed that McInnis spoke to him about the incident about a week after it occurred, claiming “I did that.”
After his arrest on March 19, 1988, McInnis denied all involvement in the attack and provided a detailed alibi, which was confirmed by several family members. But McInnis made a confession in his third statement to authorities, claiming responsibility for forcing his way into the victim’s home and raping her.
However, when asked to recount his version of events, McInnis’ statement was wildly inconsistent with the victim’s and with the physical evidence, including the method of entry to the house and the location of the attack within the home, according to police files.
McInnis was also unable to describe the nature of the attack — the victim was penetrated twice anally followed by an attempt at vaginal penetration — and stated only that it was a “rape.”
McInnis entered a guilty plea on Sept. 25, 1988 to first-degree rape, first-degree burglary, and armed robbery, and was sentenced to life imprisonment for the rape charge and 20 years for the other two.
District Attorney Kristy Newton, who was in high school at the time of McInnis’ conviction, became familiar with the case five years ago, when the nonprofit N.C. Actual Innocence Commission filed a claim on McInnis’ behalf.
At that point, Newton’s office held no files pertaining to the case, which predated prosecutorial district 16A as it currently exists. In reviewing the evidence gathered prior to McInnis’ conviction, Newton used the Laurinburg Police Department’s investigative files.
In 1988, DNA obtained by rectal swabs of the victim were submitted to Cellmark Forensics, but a DNA profile of the perpetrator could not be compiled with the technology then available. In 2010, the Laurinburg Police Department was unable to locate the swabs, assuming they had been destroyed in 2001 along with clothing evidence.
In March of this year, McInnis appealed to the statutory N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, which led to a renewed search for DNA evidence to support or refute his claim of innocence. After several days of searching by the Laurinburg Police Department, the evidence was found and submitted to Cellmark, which created a DNA profile of the attacker.
Results that excluded McInnis as the contributor of the present male DNA were returned to the DA’s office on Wednesday.
On Monday, resident Superior Court Judge Tanya Wallace, at a loss for words, granted Newton’s motion to dismiss all charges against McInnis and release him from the Department of Corrections. He was last imprisoned at Brown Creek Correctional Institute in Polkton.
“I wish I had something profound to say… there is nothing,” Wallace said. “I am a judge; I am not God.”
The victim’s niece and nephew were at Monday’s hearing, as was McInnis’ niece Brenda McInnis, who fro 27 years has supported her uncle and believed in his innocence.
“It feels like Christmas to me,” she said. “I always told him to keep faith, that the Lord would make a way — and He did.”
Now that McInnis has been released, the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission will cease its investigation. Upon reopening the original case, Newton’s office will use the commission’s files in an attempt to identify the true perpetrator.
“Now that we have succeeded in exonerating an innocent man, we will reopen the case and set about trying to determine who is actually responsible for the crime,” Newton said.
“It’s a 27-year-old case, so that certainly does make it more challenging than a recent case, but we’re going to give it priority and we’re going to work on it and we’re going to try to figure out who did this, because not only is (the victim) the victim of a horrendous crime and her family has suffered greatly because of this, but now there’s been another victim of this perpetrator, because this defendant has spent 27 years in prison for a crime somebody else committed.”
McInnis now has the option of seeking a pardon from the governor’s office. That pardon, if granted, will be the basis for McInnis to seek compensation for his years of wrongful imprisonment.
Laurinburg Police Chief Darwin Williams, who Newton credited with locating the “missing” evidence, described McInnis’ release as “bittersweet.”
“We can’t go back and give him 27 years of his life, but I can say that I played a role in freeing an innocent man. Now it’s our job to go out and try to find the person who’s responsible for this heinous crime.
“Not only are we obligated to the victims; we’re obligated to the suspects to get it right at all times.”
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.