After spending 38 years in prison, a man convicted of a 1983 murder has been released from prison after his conviction was overturned. The evidence overturning Maurice Hastings’s conviction was not analysed for two decades.
In 1988, Hastings was convicted of the murder of Roberta Wydermyer. Five years earlier, she had been sexually assaulted, shot dead, and concealed in the boot of her car. The Los Angeles District Attorney had initially sought the death penalty for Hastings. The first trial resulted in a hung jury, but a second attempt saw him sentenced to life in prison, with no possibility of parole. This was despite the several alibi witnesses Hastings produced in his defence.
A piece of potentially key evidence in this case was DNA belonging to a suspect. This had been identified in Wydermyer’s initial autopsy in 1983. This was not tested at the time. In 2000, 12 years after his conviction, Hastings wrote to the LA District Attorney, requesting analysis of this evidence. ‘I have been incarcerated for over fifteen years for a murder that I did not commit… The most compelling of the evidence that has not as of yet been examined is the DNA evidence which will conclusively show that I was not the person involved.’
The LA District Attorney’s office denied this bid. No reason has been given.
It was not until 2021, over two decades later, that a new bid supported by the Los Angeles Innocence Project succeeded in having this sample tested. The DNA matched not Hastings, but another person, previously convicted of a crime with a very similar modus operandi to the Wydermyer murder. That person has since died in prison.
The Innocence Project has compiled statistics on DNA evidence exonerations. Since 1989, 375 convictions have been overturned based on DNA evidence; 21 of these were death penalty convictions. Nonetheless, a Supreme Court decision in 2009 stated that prisoners do not have a constitutional right to have DNA evidence tested after their conviction.
Statistics suggest that race plays a significant role in wrongful conviction. Of all US exonerations, 53% are Black. The National Registry of Exonerations estimates that Black people are over seven times more likely to be wrongly convicted of murder than White people, and eight times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of rape.
Hastings said: ‘I prayed for many years that this day would come. 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.’
The current District Attorney, George Gascón, said: ‘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.’