‘The Possibility That an Innocent Person Could be Executed is Real’: After Almost 40 Years and a Brush with the Death Penalty, DNA Clears California Black Man of Rape and Murder Charges

A California Black man has been released from prison after DNA evidence exonerated him from a rape he was convicted of 38 years ago. The recent decision to let him go free comes over 20 years after he and his lawyers requested forensic testing and were denied.

On Friday, Oct. 28, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office released a statement announcing Maurice Hastings’ 1988 murder and rape conviction was vacated.

The 69-year-old man had been serving time for the 1983 murder of Roberta Wydermyer, 30, and two attempted murders. On the night of her premature demise, the young woman was out on a late supermarket trip when she vanished.

Her body was discovered in the trunk of her vehicle in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood, where she was found to have suffered a single shot to the head and had been sexually assaulted. At the time, a coroner conducted an examination of her body, “swabbing of various body parts, including an oral swab on which semen was detected.”

Hastings was arrested months after the slaying and charged with “a special circumstance murder” and the prosecution “sought the ultimate punishment of death.”

Two trials were held. The first trial with a hung jury in 1986. In his second trial in 1988 Hastings was convicted and sentenced to life in state prison without the possibility of parole in 1988. The prosecution originally sought the death penalty.

Hastings always maintained his innocence, and in 2000, requested DNA testing be done to prove his innocence to the courts.

In 2021, submitted another claim of innocence to the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which took his claim seriously. In June 2022, the testing confirmed what Hasting has been saying all along. The semen sample captured on the swab from the victim’s mouth did not match him but did another man in the state’s Combined DNA Index System who had been “engaged in and been convicted of an armed kidnapping where he placed his female victim in a trunk of a vehicle as well as the kidnap, rape, and forcible oral copulation of a young woman for which he was sentenced to 56 years in custody.”

Hastings was released from jail on Thursday, Oct. 20, after, upon seeing the new evidence, his lawyers, the Los Angeles Innocence Project at Cal State LA, requested his conviction be vacated. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan immediately granted his request.

“We no longer have any confidence in the veracity of the case against Mr. Hastings,” said Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón. “You are a free man today because of your perseverance.”

“The system failed you. The system failed the victims,” the D.A. said.

Gascón’s office is now working with the Inglewood Police Department to piece together the new case with the current suspect in Wydermyer’s murder.

Paula Mitchell, who heads the Los Angeles Innocence Project, said, “Had the jury imposed a death sentence instead of life without the possibility of parole, Mr. Hastings may not have lived to see this day.”

“The possibility that an innocent person could be executed is real,” Mitchell continued. “Our criminal justice system simply has too much room for error, as this case demonstrates.”

Gascón stated, “What has happened to Mr. Hastings is a terrible injustice. The justice system is not perfect, and when we learn of new evidence which causes us to lose confidence in a conviction, it is our obligation to act swiftly.”

“I prayed for many years that this day would come,” Hastings shared on the L.A. Innocence Project’s Instagram page. “I am just looking forward to moving forward. I am not pointing fingers; I am not standing up here a bitter man, but I just want to enjoy my life now while I have it.”

According to the LAist, after he was released, Hastings connected with his family members and his lawyers and went out to eat dinner. On the menu for the first meal out? Lobster.

I hadn’t had that in quite a long time,” the freed man said.

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