JONESBORO, Ga. (FOX 5 Atlanta) - The Clayton County District Attorney's Office is reopening a 46-year-old rape case now that DNA evidence casts doubt on whether the right man was convicted of the crime.
The FOX 5 I-Team first reported the case of Terry Wanzer and how modern day analysis of crime scene evidence backs up his claim of innocence.
The new testing was funded by the New York Innocence Project after Wanzer asked for the non-profit's assistance.
By their own count, the Innocence Project has used DNA to free more than 200 people wrongly convicted of serious crimes. Like College Park's Calvin Johnson, Junior. He served nearly 17 years in a Georgia prison for rape until the Innocence Project paid for updated DNA testing. The results in 1999 would set him free.
But that's what makes Terry Wanzer so unusual.
"I don't think we've ever had a case like Terry's," admitted Adnan Sultan, an Innocence Project attorney.
Unlike all those others, Wanzer was released early from prison decades ago. He served eight years for the rape of a teenage girl in Clayton County in 1973.
But even someone on the outside can still be held captive when landlords and employers won't believe your cries of innocence.
"They said how can you even think of applying for a job with your record?" he complained. "And I said what?"
Even though the victim picked him out of a photo lineup and said she recognized his voice, Wanzer insisted he was not one of the two young men who abducted a teenage girl along I-75, raping her in a secluded area nearby. Wanzer eventually passed a polygraph and later won a Pardon for Reason of Innocence after the Pardons and Paroles Board investigated his claims. In 1996, the General Assembly even gave him $100,000 to make up for his time spent in prison.
But surprisingly, the pardon did not automatically wipe out his conviction. And because the victim still insisted she got the right man, the Clayton County District Attorney let the rape remain on Wanzer's record.
It's made life difficult as his health has started to falter. Wanzer's now 66 years old. And angry.
We asked what he did with his pardon.
"I got mad at the Pardons and Paroles board and gave it back to them."
That's right. Wanzer gave back his pardon.
"What good is it?" he shouted. "What good is it? Oh, $100,000 but right now. Right now! This second what good is that pardon going to do me? What do I do? Flash it in front of who?"
But he found someone who would listen. Last year Wanzer asked the New York Innocence Project to pay for new DNA testing of the evidence. They agreed.
"Turns out the DNA testing results backed up the Parole Boards' findings that Terry Wanzer did not commit this crime," said attorney Sultan.
Wanzer's DNA does not match either of the male samples left behind on the victim's clothes. That was enough to convince acting Clayton County District Attorney John Fowler to assign an investigator and reopen the Wanzer case.
"That isn't a conclusion that he wasn't involved," Fowler cautioned. "That isn't a conclusion that he was involved. We're just taking a second look at it to ensure that the jury's verdict was correct. And if we determine that the jury's verdict was not correct, we'll take the appropriate steps from there."
"The right thing to do as far as we're concerned... I think as far as justice is concerned... is to vacate his conviction and to allow him to live a life free of this conviction," insisted the Innocence Project's Sultan.
The DNA results actually came back last November. The Innocence Project only notified prosecutors this summer after spending months unsuccessfully trying to secretly obtain a DNA sample from one of the people who surfaced as a suspect during the Pardons and Paroles investigation 30 years ago.
According to that investigation, Robert Payne showed deception on a polygraph. We found him in downtown Griffin. Here's part of our conversation with him.
FOX 5 I-Team: "We're doing a story about some new evidence in that Terry Wanzer rape case. From a long time ago. You remember that one, don't you?"
FOX 5 I-Team: "The DNA's come back and it shows that he's not match for the DNA left at the crime scene. Are you willing to give your DNA so they can get to the bottom of this?"
Payne: "I've already done that."
FOX 5 I-Team: "You gave your DNA to them?"
Payne: "I have yeah."
FOX 5 I-Team: "When did you give your DNA to them?"
Payne: "Uh, when they started over here at the Spalding County police department."
FOX 5 I-Team: "How many years ago was that?"
Payne: "Hmmm. Five years ago."
FOX 5 I-Team: "Did you rape that woman?"
Payne: "Hell no I didn't."
We checked with Spalding County Sheriff's Office and Griffin police. They said they have no record of Robert Payne providing his DNA. Retired investigator Amber Samples remembered interviewing Payne during that Pardons and Paroles case. She said they asked him for his DNA and Payne refused.
"I ain't trying to hide nothing," Payne told us. "I'll be glad to take a DNA."
An offer that could interest Clayton County prosecutors as they put a 46-year-old crime back on the front burner.
Even after Wanzer's conviction, authorities never identified the second man involved in the crime. The Innocence Project hopes the new DNA will not only clear Wanzer's record but finally help answer that question: who were those two men?