RICHMOND, Va. – Michael Kenneth McAlister's family shed more than a few tears over the 29 years he was locked up for an attempted rape he didn't commit.
The tears flowed again for a different reason Wednesday. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe granted McAlister, 58, a full pardon — long-awaited vindication that family members were told about on a conference call with the wrongly convicted man's lawyers.
"We were all crying tears of joy this time," McAlister's sister, Denise Haas, said in a telephone interview. "I was screaming and crying so loud I couldn't even hear my brother."
She apologized for the tearful outburst, Haas said, and her brother responded: "Don't worry about it. I'm doing the same thing."
The exoneration came five days before a hearing that could have led to McAlister's indefinite confinement as a violent sex offender under the state's civil commitment law. Authorities, including the former Richmond police detective who investigated McAlister and former and current city prosecutors, say the real perpetrator was a serial rapist who three decades ago bore a striking resemblance to McAlister.
"My staff and I have carefully and thoroughly reviewed the documentation in this case and concluded that a pardon is appropriate in light of the overwhelming evidence, including a recent confession by another individual, pointing to Mr. McAlister's actual innocence of the crime for which he was convicted," McAuliffe said in a written statement.
Virginia prisons spokeswoman Lisa Kinney was unable to say how soon McAlister will be released from prison.
"We're thrilled the governor did the right thing here and that he's giving Mike the freedom he's deserved for so long," said Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which pushed for McAlister's exoneration. "I know these aren't easy decisions for governors to make, and we are grateful that Gov. McAuliffe did it and did it so quickly."
McAuliffe granted the pardon a little over a month after receiving the petition.
McAlister was convicted of the February 1986, abduction and attempted rape of a woman who was dragged at knifepoint from an apartment complex laundry room in Richmond. The victim fought off her assailant and was able to get a partial look at his face by clawing at his stocking mask.
The woman identified McAlister as the attacker from a photo lineup that did not include a picture of a serial rapist, Norman Bruce Derr, who was active in the area at the time. A previous attack by Derr on a police decoy in a laundry room of the same apartment complex had been thwarted.
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy confirmed that Derr, who is serving three life terms in prison, is the man who confessed to the crime for which McAlister was convicted.
McAlister was initially identified as a suspect based on a police composite sketch. He was known to the local police because he had a record of indecent exposure and he lived only about four miles from the apartment complex where the attack occurred. When he was interviewed by detectives, McAlister agreed to allow them to take his picture wearing a plaid shirt similar to the one the attacker had worn. He was the only person in the photo lineup wearing that type of shirt, the petition says.
The only trial evidence linking McAlister to the attack was the victim's eyewitness testimony.
Haas said her brother was initially angry about his plight, but not anymore.
"None of us harbor any anger toward anybody, not at all," she said.
Haas said family members were looking forward to making up for lost time together and enjoying some simple pleasures McAlister missed while he was locked up.
"He's been wanting pork chops forever and a day," she said. "So we've got some nice, thick pork chops to put on the grill and we will let him take it from there."