Terry Wanzer was 19 when he was charged with rape. Now he's 66 years old. Despite a pardon and new DNA tests indicating he was not involved in that rape, his criminal record still shows that rape arrest. He says he can't get a job or rent a house.
JONESBORO, GA. (FOX 5 Atlanta) - Science may help a Georgia man finally resolve something that's taken 46 years to prove: he is not a rapist.
But it's only half of this story, one that continues to play out decades after a vicious crime.
Richard Nixon was President; Jimmy Carter was Georgia's governor at the time two men raped a 17-year-old girl south of Atlanta. Police were convinced they had one of them and even won a conviction, all based on the eyewitness testimony of the victim.
But Terry Wanzer is adamant: the victim got it wrong.
"I've been fighting for this for 46 years,” he said. “I've never stopped fighting man.”
According to the victim’s testimony, she and her aunt had been driving back to Atlanta from a concert in Macon. Around 1 a.m. on July 2, 1973, she said two young white men pulled alongside in their car to warn her tire was going flat. When she stopped to check, she said the men pulled in behind. One of them jumped out with a gun, ordered her aunt out of the car and then got behind the wheel himself. The second man followed in the other car. The two would eventually take their 17-year-old victim to a secluded area near Lake Spivey to rape and sodomize her. After a short time, they got back in their own car and drove away.
The men did not wear masks or gloves. The young woman said the man with the gun even introduced himself and said his name was Terry.
A detective remembered a young man named Terry who lived in the area. He found 19-year-old Terry Wanzer's mugshot from a petty crime a few years earlier and mixed it in with other photos of young white men. The victim picked out Wanzer's photo. She also identified his voice through a two-way mirror in the police interview room.
Wanzer had come to the police station hoping to clear everything up.
“I'm thinking this won't take more than a minute and we'll be done with this and something to talk about later on,” Wanzer, now 66, remembered.
He was taken into custody, his trial coming just a few months later. Wanzer produced three alibi witnesses. A lot of evidence didn’t add up. The description of the rapist's car didn't match his. Neither did the rapist's clothes. The state's case consisted primarily of the victim's testimony. Police did not search for fingerprints.
Yet Wanzer would be convicted on all counts and sent to notorious Reidsville State Prison. Two life sentences plus two 20-year sentences.
“I kept thinking every minute that a miracle's going to happen any second,” he said. “They're going to find out the truth. That's how stupid I am."
But Terry did get a miracle. It was in the form of a legal aid attorney who heard about his case while visiting Reidsville. Thomas Killeen wrote the Pardons and Paroles Board to review the conviction since it was based primarily on the testimony of one person and no scientific evidence. Board members agreed and ordered a new investigation, interviewing witnesses and even using something that's not admissible in court.
They asked polygraph expert Dixie Foster to give Wanzer a lie detector test.
"I've seen enough deception,” Foster told us after we arranged for him to meet Terry Wanzer decades later. “And after talking to this young fella here for a short period of time, (he’s) innocent as heck. I told people outside waiting for me what I had just uncovered. I was furious at the destruction of this man's life."
After eight years in prison, Wanzer would be granted parole. In 1991 parole became pardon, the Board granting him a Pardon for Reason of Innocence, only the second time ever. "Board Members unanimously have concluded from the evidence that (Wanzer's) conviction resulted from a tragic mistaken identification."
In 1996, the Georgia General Assembly did him one better, voting to pay Wanzer $100,000 as compensation. He was finally a happy man, eventually using the money to help buy a series of restaurants and bars.
"I was blessed,” he remembered. “Really blessed. Thankful. Until I got sick. And then I lost everything I had. Boo hoo." Wanzer wants to make sure you don’t feel sorry for him. He said everyone gets sick at some point.
A series of recent heart attacks drained his savings and investments. But he says when he went to apply for a job, employers did their customary background check. Wanzer’s rape conviction popped up like a red warning siren.
"I told them I had a pardon,” Wanzer explained. “They didn't care."
The rape remained on Wanzer's record because the Clayton County District Attorney’s office never filed a motion to set aside the conviction, some there at the time still doubting his innocence. So Wanzer searched for one more miracle. And this time it arrived in the form of three capital letters. DNA.
The Pardons and Paroles Board knew that both rapists had left behind semen samples. But the science was not sophisticated enough in the early 1990s to compare that DNA to Wanzer's.
Last year, the New York Innocence Project agreed to pay for new testing, called STR.
The results came back last November along with the quote Wanzer had waited 46 years to read.
"Terry Wanzer is eliminated as a source of semen/sperm DNA in the stain in the crotch of the victim’s pants."
"So now you got more than just the polygraph,” I pointed out to him.
“This is God's way of pointing His finger at the innocent and the guilty,” he said with a smile. “I did not commit that crime."
Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson said in light of the DNA results her office is reviewing the entire case file. She won't say yet whether they will file a motion to remove the rape from Wanzer's record.
But there's something else they also must consider. Now that they have identifiable DNA for both rapists, should prosecutors reopen the criminal case? Is there a match still out there somewhere? A rapist never caught?
Both Wanzer and polygraph examiner Dixie Foster think the case should be reopened.
“You betcha,” said Foster. He said he thinks he knows who really committed the crime. I asked him how.
“Because I talked to him,” Foster replied.
That's right. According to Wanzer's Pardon For Reason of Innocence, two other men identified as possible suspects years after the crime failed their lie detector tests. They took the polygraph with the understanding that the statute of limitations had already passed.
But in 2010, the General Assembly passed a law eliminating any statute of limitations for rape if DNA can identify a suspect. And they made it retroactive, meaning this 46-year-old rape case could be reopened if prosecutors choose.