For almost four decades, Anthony J Broadwater has insisted that he was innocent.
Mr Broadwater, 61, spent the time spanning his trial, subsequent conviction, a 16-year jail stint and the years after that trying to consistently prove that he did not rape award-winning author Alice Sebold when she was a student at Syracuse University in 1981.
He tried at least five times to get the judges to vacate the conviction until Monday, when it was finally overturned after a judge determined that the wrong man had been sent to jail.
The exoneration came after Timothy Mucciante, a producer working on a Netflix adaptation of Sebold’s 1999 memoir Lucky, first noticed glaring discrepancies in the prosecution’s case. Mr Mucciante became sceptical of Mr Broadwater’s guilt when the first draft of the script differed significantly from the book.
“I started poking around and trying to figure out what really happened here,” he told the Associated Press. His doubts were not about Sebold’s assault, but about the trial “which didn’t hang together”, he told the New York Times.
Soon after, Mr Mucciante was dropped from the project, but he nonetheless hired Dan Myers as a private investigator and relied on him to look into the evidence. Mr Myers, who spent 20 years working for the Onondaga County sheriff’s office, also became convinced of Mr Broadwater’s innocence and recommended J David Hammond as his defence attorney.
Mr Hammond told CNN that he and his colleague, Melissa Swartz, listened to the transcript of the trial and found “serious legal issues”, prompting them to file a motion to have the conviction overturned.
Sebold, 58, wrote about being raped as a freshman at Syracuse in May 1981 in her memoir. She said she had notified campus police soon after the assault and described the assailant’s features to the police. But the resulting sketch did not resemble her memory of the attacker.
Several months later, when she spotted a Black man on a street, she was sure that he was her attacker. “He was smiling as he approached. He recognised me. It was a stroll in the park to him; he had met an acquaintance on the street,” wrote Sebold in her memoir. “‘Hey, girl,’ he said. ‘Don’t I know you from somewhere?’”
She said she didn’t respond. “I looked directly at him. Knew his face had been the face over me in the tunnel.”
She again went to the police but did not know his name and the police failed to find him in the initial search. An officer suggested that the man in the street must have been Mr Broadwater, who was supposedly in that area at the time. In her memoir, she gives him the pseudonym Gregory Madison.
While the police arrested Mr Broadwater, Sebold failed to identify him in a police lineup. She picked up a different man as her attacker because “the expression in his eyes told me that if we were alone, if there were no wall between us, he would call me by name and then kill me”.
Mr Broadwater, who was 20 years old at the time, had returned home from a stint in the Marines to spend time with his ill father.
Despite Sebold failing to identify him in a police lineup, Mr Broadwater was sent to trial. Sebold, who is white, identified him as her rapist on the witness stand during the trial. At the time of Mr Broadwater’s arrest and subsequent prosecution, his father’s health worsened. He died shortly after Mr Broadwater was sent to prison.
The prosecution’s case at the time rested on two pieces of evidence: Sebold’s testimony and a microscopic hair analysis that tied Mr Broadwater to the crime. The method has since been discredited by the US Justice Department.
Onondaga County district attorney William Fitzpatrick, who joined the motion to vacate the conviction, submitted before New York Supreme Court Justice Gordon Cuffy that eyewitness misidentification of strangers increases significantly when they are across racial lines and are therefore unreliable.
Arguing that prosecution was an injustice, Mr Fitzpatrick said he was “not going to sully this proceeding by saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ That doesn’t cut it… This should never have happened.”
Mr Hammond and Ms Swartz, the defence lawyers, argued for prosecutorial misconduct to be a factor as well, while the district attorney apologised to Mr Broadwater privately before the court hearing.
“When he spoke to me about the wrong that was done to me, I couldn’t help but cry,” Mr Broadwater said. “The relief that a district attorney of that magnitude would side with me in this case, it’s so profound, I don’t know what to say.”
On Monday, Mr Broadwater was visibly overcome with emotion as he buried his head in his hands after the judge overturned the conviction at the request of the prosecutors. “I never, ever, ever thought I would see the day that I would be exonerated,” Mr Broadwater told the Syracuse-based Post-Standard newspaper.
Mr Broadwater had remained on New York’s sex offender registry even after finishing his prison term in 1999. He worked as a trash hauler and handyman in the years after his release. The conviction eclipsed his job prospects and his relationships with family and friends.
“On my two hands, I can count the people that allowed me to grace their homes and dinners, and I don’t get past 10,” he told the New York Times.
Despite marrying a woman who believed in his innocence, Mr Broadwater said he decided against having children. “We had a big argument sometimes about kids, and I told her I could never, ever allow kids to come into this world with a stigma on my back,” he told the Associated Press.
Relieved over his exoneration, Mr Broadwater said: “I’m so elated, the cold can’t even keep me cold.”
He told CNN that while he sympathised with Sebold, he just hopes there will be “a sincere apology”. “I would accept it. I’m not bitter or have malice towards her.”
Sebold did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment sent through her publisher and her literary agency.
Additional reporting by agencies