Innocent man freed 38 years after imprisonment for murder as DNA test reveals another suspect

Maurice Hastings smiling in court. His wrongful conviction was overturned after 38 years  (Cal State LA)
Maurice Hastings smiling in court. His wrongful conviction was overturned after 38 years (Cal State LA)

A Los Angeles judge on Wednesday confirmed what Maurice Hastings has known for every minute of the last four decades: he was wrongly imprisoned for a murder he did not commit.

Mr Hastings, a Black man, was released from prison last year after previously untested DNA evidence suggested that he was not responsible for the 1983 murder he had been convicted of. Last October, the Judge William Ryan vacated Mr Hastings’ conviction at the urging of Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office and lawyers from the Los Angeles Innocence Project.

On Wednesday, Mr Hastings returned to court to hear Mr Ryan declare him “factually innocent” of the murder — a declaration that means the evidence proves that he did not commit the crime. Mr Hastings will now have the opportunity to pursue compensation for the wrongful conviction that saw him imprisoned for 38 years.

“It means a lot. I’m grateful for the judge’s ruling, and the apologies — everything has been wonderful today,” Mr Hastings said, according to the Los Angeles Innocence Project and NBC News. “I’m ready to move on with my life. I’m a happy man today.”

In 1983, a woman named Roberta Wydermyer was sexually assaulted and killed with a gunshot to the head. Her body was found in the trunk of a car in Inglewood, outside of Los Angeles.

Police in the case identified Mr Hastings as a suspect. He was eventually charged with special circumstance murder, with the district attorney seeking the death penalty. The first jury that heard the case deadlocked, but a second jury convicted Mr Hastings. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The whole time, Mr Hastings maintained that he was not guilty — and there was evidence that could prove it.

After Ms Wydermyer was killed, the coroner conducted a sexual assault examination and found semen with an oral swab. Mr Hastings wanted the DNA from the semen examined as early as 2000, but the district attorney’s office at the time denied his request.

Then, in 2021, Mr Hastings and his lawyers from the Innocence Project submitted a claim to the district attorney office’s Conviction Integrity Unit — a unit founded in 2015 by former LA District Attorney Jackie Lacey and renamed and bolstered in recent years by current DA George Gascón.

This time, the office agreed to test the semen — and found that it was not Mr Hastings, but that of another man, Kenneth Packnett, who had been convicted of armed kidnapping and assault of another female victim and died in prison in 2020. That evidence was enough to free Mr Hastings.

“He spent nearly four decades in prison exhausting every avenue to prove his innocence while being repeatedly denied,” Mr Gascón said in a statement following the judge’s declaration on Wednesday. “But Mr. Hastings has remained steadfast and faithful that one day he would hear a judge proclaim his innocence.”