Prosecutors: ’92 rape DNA from Woodberry
Darrin Hill, with graying temples and a paunch, walked up the aisle of an Orleans Parish courtroom on Tuesday and stood just feet in front of the woman who once accused him of anal rape at gunpoint.
The victim, who identified Hill in a police photo lineup after she discovered his checkbook in the car where she was brutally assaulted, helped send him away for nearly two decades for a crime that DNA evidence later proved he never committed.
She looked him over Tuesday, testifying that he was “definitely not” her assailant — contrary to her earlier claim.
Hill, 47, agreed to a count of not guilty by reason of insanity from the lakefront rape, one of three sexual assaults that prosecutors now have pinned on Derrick Woodberry, 38, who is on trial this week.
Testing last year of DNA evidence that had been held for years in the courthouse at Tulane and Broad excluded Hill as the rapist and linked the crime to Woodberry, prosecutors argued Tuesday.
Woodberry was convicted on numerous charges from another sexual assault in 1994. He was set to go free from prison when the DNA matches were made in the other crimes, both of which occurred in 1992.
Between his arrest and his release last year, Hill spent 20 years in custody, mostly at a state mental institution in Jackson. His arrival in court Tuesday, prompted by defense attorneys who sought to contrast his appearance with that of Woodberry, highlighted a long day of testimony on the first day of a trial expected to last through the week.
One of the rape victims is now dead from liver disease.
In the other assault, prosecutors claim Woodberry approached a young couple chatting on the lakefront, pulled a gun and forced the woman’s boyfriend to wade into Lake Pontchartrain up to his neck while he held a gun to the woman’s ribs.
He then drove off with the woman in her boyfriend’s yellow Geo Storm, pistol-whipping her along the way, then had her park with another man driving behind.
According to the woman, whom the New Orleans Advocate is not naming because she was an alleged victim of sexual assault, the man then forced her into the back seat, shoved her head against the windshield and anally raped her before leaving. Through the ordeal, he threatened to kill her.
“He said, ‘Should I kill you or should I just leave you here,” she said he asked after the assault. “Then he said, ‘Tell your boyfriend I (had sex with) you.”
These days, she said, “I can’t sit with my back to any doors. I’m overprotective with my kids. I’m always looking for exits. It’s a lot.”
The woman went to the hospital that night and underwent an exam. The physical evidence remained in the courthouse for years. Then, the Orleans Parish Post-Conviction DNA Evidence Project, a grant-funded program to sort out criminal evidence in the courthouse, forwarded it for review to a group that includes representatives of District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office and Innocence Project New Orleans.
The evidence in the rape case wasn’t lost. It just had never been tested.
The results led Hill out of the courthouse in April 2012, after many years at a state hospital, and brought Woodberry back in. Criminal District Judge Frank Marullo freed Hill under an agreement between Cannizzaro’s office and the Innocence Project.
It marked the first exoneration for the DNA Evidence Project, which has reviewed evidence in nearly 2,000 cases dating back 50 years.
Woodberry remained placid Tuesday in court, wearing a pale blue shirt and jotting down notes as the alleged victim of the lakefront rape recounted a harrowing abduction and assault.
Woodberry faces two counts each of aggravated kidnapping and aggravated rape from the 1992 incidents.
Hill’s appearance was brief, and largely silent. According to a federal complaint he has filed against the city and New Orleans police, among others, Hill was a “bipolar, 26-year-old with schizoaffective disorder and a borderline range of intellectual functioning” who was being cared for by his mother when police pinned the rape on him.
A checkbook with his name on it, found in the Geo Storm, was the result of “a group of men who had targeted vulnerable Mr. Hill and induced him to open a bank account for them.”
Police, Hill’s lawyers contend, used the power of suggestion to convince the victim to identify him in a photo lineup and failed to follow up on evidence that pointed in a different direction.
Outside the courtroom on Tuesday, Hill, who was arrested in 1992, claimed he had no hard feelings for the victim, saying only, “I feel like an oddball, really. I’m trying to take it easy. I don’t feel anything.”
Said his mother, Marie Hill: “He didn’t know what was going on. They’ve taken away his life.”