Malcolm Alexander (center) with his son and grandson—also named Malcolm—on the day he was exonerated, Jan. 30, 2018 (the Innocence Project)

Malcolm Alexander, who was just 21 years old when he was wrongfully convicted of aggravated rape and sentenced to life in Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola), was released from prison Monday after Jefferson Parish Judge June Darensburg overturned his conviction.

Darensburg made her decision after a reinvestigation by the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office determined that Alexander did not have competent and effective counsel during his trial, and that his conviction rested heavily on a flawed, unreliable identification procedure.

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Her decision also rested on DNA evidence that was thought to be lost long ago.

The Case 

On Nov. 8, 1979, a black man allegedly entered an antique store on Whitney Avenue in Gretna, La. He allegedly grabbed the owner, a 39-year-old white woman, from behind in the empty store and raped her twice at gunpoint.

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The victim never clearly saw her attacker’s face.

In February 1980, Alexander had a consensual sexual encounter with a white woman who asked him for money and later accused him of sexual assault.

Even though the woman’s charges were unsubstantiated and no charges were ever filed against Alexander, authorities had his photo on file.

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That’s all they needed.

Gretna police showed the antique-store owner Alexander’s picture, and she “tentatively” identified him as her assailant out of hundreds of photos shown to her. Three days later, police placed Alexander in a lineup, and by that time, the store owner was “sure” that he was the man who had attacked her.

This was four months after she was attacked in the dark, from behind, at gunpoint. Alexander was the only man in the lineup whose picture had also been in the photo array.

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According to the Innocence Project:

Research has shown that multiple identification procedures can contaminate a witness’s memory, causing a witness to become confused about whether he or she recognizes the person from the event or the earlier procedure, while also making the witness more confident in his or her identification.

After a trial that lasted one day—during which Alexander’s attorney, Joseph Tosh, failed to make an opening statement or call any witnesses for the defense, and failed to adequately cross-examine the state’s witnesses about the identification—Alexander was sentenced to life in prison on Dec. 10, 1980.

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Still, he never stopped insisting that he was innocent.

Alexander reached out to the Innocence Project in 1996, and the organization quickly discovered that critical DNA evidence had been destroyed only four years into his sentence.

Alexander’s freedom felt like an impossible dream, but in 2013, there was a break in the case. Pubic hair recovered from the antique store where the rape took place was found at the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office Crime Lab.

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The hairs belonged to neither Alexander nor the victim. This fact, along with Alexander’s lack of competent counsel and the flawed identification procedure, was enough for Judge Darensburg to overturn his conviction.

“The stakes in this case couldn’t have been higher for Mr. Alexander, who faced a mandatory sentence of life without parole, yet the attorney that he entrusted with his life did next to nothing to defend him,” said Vanessa Potkin, post-conviction litigation director at the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law.

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“It is simply unconscionable,” she continued. “Mr. Alexander was just 21 years old when he was convicted after a trial that began and ended all in the same day. We know there are many more innocent people in prison today because their lawyers did not provide effective representation, or did not have the resources to put on an adequate defense. Without effective defense counsel, our system is nothing more than a conviction mill.”

Tosh was disbarred in 1999 after he was found to have been negligent in dozens of other cases.

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Alexander’s family was waiting to greet him when he was released from the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center, including his son, Malcolm Stewart Sr., 40, and his grandson, Malcolm III, 20, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports.

Malcolm Stewart was 2 years old when his father went away; Malcolm III is almost the same age his grandfather was when he was wrongfully convicted.

Alexander told reporters that being free and with his family made him feel “like a newborn baby.”

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Though his father, Edmund Alexander, died in 2004, there was another special person waiting with arms outstretched for her baby.

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart for getting my child out of that place,” Alexander’s mother, Maudra Alexander, 82, told attorneys for the Innocence Project. “He’s been there for so long.”