CLAYTON COUNTY, Ga. (FOX 5 Atlanta) - The Clayton County District Attorney's office said a decision will come soon on whether to reopen a 46-year-old rape case now that DNA indicated they prosecuted the wrong guy.
The FOX 5 I-Team broke the story of Terry Wanzer, a Georgia man who never stopped insisting he was innocent. One of his unlikely supporters: a seasoned investigator with the Pardons and Paroles Board who remembered her first thought when she began reviewing his case 30 years ago.
"I just believed he was guilty because a jury convicted him," said Amber Samples, now retired. "I know now that was kind of naive."
Wanzer was 19 when he was charged with the rape and sodomy of a fellow teenager, a girl driving home with her aunt through Clayton County late one night in 1973. The victim testified that Wanzer and another man abducted her and drove to a remote area of Clayton County where she was raped and sodomized. Investigators never searched for fingerprints. The state's only evidence was the victim's testimony.
Despite three alibi witnesses, the jury convicted Wanzer on all charges. He was sentenced to two life terms plus another 40 years.
"She got the wrong person," Wanzer remembered thinking. "She's done picked out the wrong person."
Years into his sentence, Wanzer convinced the Pardons and Paroles Board to review his conviction. They had him meet a polygraph examiner in the prison chapel.
"After about 30 minutes this overall feeling came over me," polygraph examiner Dixie Foster recalled. "It ain't him."
Wanzer would pass that lie detector test, winning early parole after serving eight years of that double life sentence. He eventually got a full Pardon for Reason of Innocence.
But prosecutors in Clayton County still had doubts, largely because the victim in their case maintained Wanzer was one of the two rapists even after the Pardons and Paroles Board decided otherwise.
That's why the rape conviction remains on his record today.
"I was going to go on with my life," said Wanzer, now 66. "That didn't happen."
Decades later, new technology finally allowed investigators to analyze sperm from two different men left on the woman's clothes that night in 1973. The Innocence Project paid to compare Wanzer's DNA to those samples. Wanzer recounted that day last November when his attorney called with the results.
"He said Mr. Wanzer, the DNA test came back that I couldn't possibily have committed the crime. I got all tore up and I couldn't think, breathe or.. hung up on him."
One sentence in the report stands out:
"Terry Wanzer is eliminated as the source of the semen/sperm DNA in the stain in the crotch of the victim's pants."
Wanzer asked the Clayton County District Attorney's office to file a motion to set aside his conviction. That would finally wipe his record clean. But there's another decision facing prosecutors. Should they reopen the case itself? Because if Terry Wanzer did not commit that rape, someone else did.
Amber Samples headed up that Pardons and Paroles Board investigation of Wanzer's case in the early 1990s, work that eventually got him his pardon for reason of innocence because of "a tragic mistaken identification."
In that pardon, the board wrote that two of Wanzer's schoolmates had surfaced years after the crime as potential perpetrators and took polygraphs. According to the pardon, "the results indicated both were deceptive."
Samples interviewed both men as part of her investigation, even though by that time, according to the pardon, "the statute of limitations prevented further prosecution."
"That's why the two took the polygraph because they knew they couldn't be prosecuted anyway," Samples told the FOX 5 I-Team.
One of those men has since died. The other is Robert Payne, now 63 years old. He told the FOX 5 I-Team he's ready to finally get this behind him, too.
"I didn't do it. I didn't have nothing to do with it. I don't... I ain't trying to hide nothing," the Griffin man explained. "I'll be glad to take a DNA."
"You think Terry's innocent?" I asked Payne.
I explained, "Well, the DNA shows that he didn't do it."
"I don't know what the hell went on. I really don't."
"Well someone out there raped that poor girl," I pointed out. "Two people did. The DNA says it wasn't Terry Wanzer."
"Sure wasn't me," Payne replied.
In 2010, the General Assembly passed a law allowing prosecutors to reopen any past rape case if DNA can identify the perpetrator.
In 2012, Amber Samples retired. She never again worked a case as important as Terry Wanzer's. She thinks there's still more work to be done.
"I wish they would (reopen the case.)," she said. "Because I think Terry deserves that."