Orleans jury convicts man in 1992 rapes

An Orleans Parish jury took 90 minutes to convict Derrick Woodberry in the rapes of two women in 1992, ignoring claims that DNA evidence uncovered a few years ago amounted to tainted evidence.

The jury of seven women and five men convicted Woodberry, 38, on Friday of forcible rape and second-degree kidnapping in the 1992 assault on a woman who later died of liver disease.

He also was convicted of aggravated rape and kidnapping in the attack on another woman that same year.

She testified this week that he slammed her against the back seat window of her boyfriend’s car and anally raped her.

The woman, whom the New Orleans Advocate is not naming because she is an alleged victim of sexual assault, claimed she was chatting with her boyfriend on the bank of Lake Pontchartrain when a man approached, put a gun to her side and forced her boyfriend into the lake up to his neck.

He then took off with the woman and raped her in the back seat of her boyfriend’s yellow Geo Storm.

According to the woman, who testified this week, her assailant pistol-whipped her along the way before tossing her in the back seat, while another unknown man parked behind in a car. After the rape, the rapist told his victim to tell her boyfriend what he’d done.

The woman went to the hospital that night and underwent an exam. The physical evidence remained stagnant for years in an evidence room of the courthouse before it came to light through a grant-funded program to sort out items there.

A group that includes representatives of Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office and Innocence Project New Orleans took up the cause to test the rape kit, which cleared Darrin Hill. And it implicated Woodberry, who had been convicted in a 1994 rape.

By that time, Hill had spent nearly two decades in custody after agreeing to cop to an insanity plea in the Lake Pontchartrain rape. He was released from a state institution last year.

Still, the victim’s then-boyfriend, Gawain Thompson, confounded the prosecution’s new theory this week. He pegged Hill as the buck-toothed assailant who raped his girlfriend more than two decades ago, despite what the DNA evidence said.

A checkbook with Hill’s name on it turned up in the victim’s car shortly after the rape, and the victim initially pegged him as the rapist in a photo lineup. In court on Thursday, Hill was asked to stand before the jury, open his mouth and bare his buck teeth.

The jury, however, didn’t buy the theory, favoring the heavy DNA evidence against Woodberry.

Christopher Bowman, spokesman for Cannizzaro, praised the verdict and also implicated Hill in the crime, despite his DNA exoneration for the rape.

“We’re extremely pleased with the jury’s verdict. Justice was a long time coming to these victims. In fact, one of the victims wasn’t alive to see it,” Bowman said.

“We believe (Hill) was probably an accomplice. He was in all likelihood present.”

Woodberry’s attorney, Judson Mitchell, said there were “significant holes” in how the DNA evidence was kept in the case.

“The handling of the evidence was suspect,” he said, adding, “I believe Darren Hill will rest easy tonight.”

In the meantime, Hill is suing the city and the New Orleans Police Department in federal court, claiming they prosecuted him despite evidence that pointed elsewhere.

Mitchell argued that investigators failed from the get-go.

“The problem here is they didn’t really investigate this case at all,” he told the jury.

Assistant District Attorney Payal Patel, however, urged the jury to right a wrong.

“You have the power to correct that horrible injustice 20 years ago,” she said, referring to Hill’s conviction. “The true rapist went unpunished.”

Patel described Woodberry as a serial rapist. He had been convicted of another rape, of a 15-year-old girl in 1994, with a similar modus operandi: walking up to a stranger innocuously, engaging in brief conversation and then sexually assaulting her.

Woodberry is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 8 by Criminal District Judge Karen Herman, who presided over the criminal case.

Just how long a sentence he will serve is unclear. Mitchell noted that Woodberry was under 18 at the time of the crime, which could impact sentencing.