All it took was for technicians in a crime lab to run the fingerprints collected at the scene of a rape, through a national database. Within hours, the experts had established a match with a serial rapist.
But that was last week — almost four decades after the attack on Dec. 9, 1982, when a woman was raped and stabbed in her home in a well-to-do neighborhood in Baton Rouge, La. A different man, Archie Williams, went to prison for the crime, even though it was known at the trial that the fingerprints were not his.
On Thursday, Mr. Williams was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary after serving 36 years.
Mr. Williams first requested that the fingerprints be run against the national database in 1999, but prosecutors opposed the move and there was no statute entitling him to do so. About four out of five exonerations are achieved without DNA evidence, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Yet only a handful of states allow post-conviction access to the fingerprint database, much less account for emerging technologies such as facial recognition.
“It was incredibly frustrating to know that there was technology out there that would lead to the truth, that would give him his innocence — and we were blocked from it,” said Vanessa Potkin, a lawyer with the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that assisted Mr. Williams with his exoneration.