he shiny balloons over Thomas Haynesworth’s desk are so festive you can practically hear the party horns. “Congratulations!” they proclaim. “Happy Anniversary.” The balloons are from doting colleagues, and the scene could be from any business office in the United States. But this occasion is markedly different. The balloons commemorate neither a birthday, nor a promotion, nor a wedding. Rather, they mark the one-year anniversary of Haynesworth’s exoneration on rape charges that wrongly cost him 27 years behind bars.
In February 1984, Haynesworth was arrested while walking to a local market to buy sweet potatoes and bread. Only 18 at the time, he had no idea why he was suddenly surrounded by police peppering him with questions. Later, he learned a woman who had been the victim of a sexual assault had seen him walking to the same grocery store days earlier. She identified him as her assailant.
Then other victims said they believed Haynesworth attacked them as well. Authorities eventually accused him of five rapes, tried him for four, and convicted him of three. He was sentenced to 84 years in prison.
As Haynesworth languished in jail, friends and advisers urged him to confess in return for a reduced sentence. But he refused to cop a plea for crimes he did not commit.
Then in 2009, the forensic evidence associated with two of the rape charges was tested.
The results were astonishing: The DNA belonged not to Haynesworth, but to a convicted serial rapist who lived in the same neighborhood.
That man is now serving multiple life sentences. Thus began an arduous battle to win Haynesworth’s release. Only a majority vote by the Virginia Court of Appeals could overturn all of his convictions and set him free. But after 27 years, just getting a hearing would be difficult, because despite strong circumstantial evidence of his innocence, no DNA evidence was available in the other two cases.
“I never asked, God, why me?” Haynesworth tells Newsmax. “Even though I did 27 years, there’s always somebody in a worse predicament.”
Shawn Armbrust, the executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which fights for prisoner exonerations, remembers an awkward silence after Richmond commonwealth’s attorney Mike Herring, a Democrat, first suggested they ask for help from an unlikely source: Republican Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II. “Everyone kind of looked at him like he was crazy,” Armbrust recalls.
Cuccinelli had a reputation as a no-nonsense, law-and-order conservative who was tough on crime. But Herring, who had dealt with the stalwart conservative before, knew it was the sort of case that would matter to Cuccinelli. Armbrust set up a meeting with one of Cuccinelli’s assistants, presented the case, and then hoped for a miracle.
Late one night several weeks later, one of Cuccinelli’s assistant district attorneys received a phone call. Cuccinelli, who is notorious for working all sorts of hours, was on the line. He had read the case file late that evening. “This man is innocent,” he declared.
“We need to get him out of prison as soon as possible. When can we do it?”
Armbrust, who has dedicated her life to righting wrongs, and who jokingly describes herself as a “borderline socialist,” was overjoyed when she got the news.
Virginia’s attorney general had a reputation for bringing a passionate commitment to the causes he believed in. Love him or hate him, once Ken Cuccinelli believed in something, he was all in. Still, she wondered if he might be playing an angle. “There were a lot of people saying he was picking an issue to make himself look like he wasn’t to the right of Attila the Hun,” Armbrust recalls.
Her worry evaporated after Cuccinelli asked her to set up a personal meeting with Haynesworth. “He actually got pretty choked up,” Armbrust says of that get-together. “He said, ‘There’s no way there is anything I can do to take back the 27 years that you lost. But you at least deserve a personal apology from the representative of the commonwealth.’” He also pledged that he and his colleagues would do whatever they could to make up for Haynesworth’s wrongful incarceration.
In July 2011, a three-judge panel heard the case. Prosecutors from the jurisdictions where the rapes occurred joined with Cuccinelli in calling for Haynesworth’s release. But instead of the slam-dunk verdict most observers expected, the panel asked for more briefs in the case. A second hearing was scheduled for September. The case would be presented before the entire 10-member court of appeals, and Cuccinelli announced he would personally handle the arguments that would decide if Haynesworth ever again would be a free man.
Armbrust was nervous. “A lot of times when the head honcho wants to do the argument,” she says, “they never know the case quite as well as the person who is really on the case. It’s kind of posturing.”
But Cuccinelli “knew those facts cold,” she says. In what attorneys refer to as a “hot bench,” the appellate judges peppered him with tough questions. Cuccinelli, who has an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering as well as a master’s degree in international commerce, seemed to have all the answers.
“We’re always going to make mistakes,” Cuccinelli tells Newsmax in an exclusive interview, when asked why he took up Haynesworth’s cause. “And unless we’re willing to admit that, we’re going to leave people in jail who don’t belong there.”
When the interrogation was complete, the justices announced they would take the appeal under deliberation. Haynesworth, who by then was a conditional parolee, would have to wait for the appellate court to rule on his writ of innocence.
But Haynesworth’s troubles were only beginning. He was out of jail, but not yet exonerated. That meant he was living in a no-man’s land, listed as a registered sex offender, his movements restricted, with rape convictions marring his record — try finding work with that on your resume.
One day Haynesworth called Armbrust and described his desperation. Remembering Cuccinelli’s promise, she put in a call to his office. Had Cuccinelli really been sincere? This would be the ultimate test.
After a brief wait, a Cuccinelli deputy said, “We’d like to see Thomas tomorrow in our office.”
She brought Haynesworth to Cuccinelli’s Richmond headquarters, hoping for a job interview. Staffers immediately began helping him fill out paperwork. Then they began reciting a generous list of benefits: vision, health, dental, pension. Armbrust suddenly realized it wasn’t a job interview at all. It was Haynesworth’s first day on the job.
“I started to cry,” Armbrust recalls. “No one thinks about this, but when you’re locked up from age 18 to age 47, you don’t have anything in Social Security. You don’t have any retirement planned for. He was going to get a pension. He was going to get health insurance. He had all of these benefits that . . . most people who spend their entire adult lives locked up are never going to see.”
On Dec. 6, 2011, by a 6-to-4 vote, the Virginia Court of Appeals cleared Haynesworth of all charges.
Today, Haynesworth works in the offices of Cuccinelli, one of the nation’s leading conservative standard-bearers, who fought tirelessly for his release and then gave him a job to try to help right the wrong that had been done.
Haynesworth spends his days with mundane but important tasks like collecting and metering mail. In his spare time, he visits prisons and encourages inmates not to give up hope. “He is real straightforward,” Haynesworth says of his new boss. “I like that. He said, ‘I can’t take it back. We were wrong. Whatever I can do to make that right, I’m going to try to do it.’ He meant what he said. And he backed it up.”
o why would an up-and-coming conservative like Cuccinelli expose himself to the risks of embracing Haynesworth’s case?
After all, the names of Willie Horton and Wayne DuMond stand as monuments to the havoc that a single bad criminal release can wreak on an otherwise promising political career.
“People are a little surprised to see a conservative Republican take that focus,” the attorney general admits, adding: “but I am passionate about it . . . I argued that case, and that kind of case alone makes it worth running for office.”
The Haynesworth appeal attracted national media attention. But that will be nothing like the scrutiny that Cuccinelli will face later this year, when he squares off against former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. With popular GOP New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie expected to cruise to re-election this year, the McAuliffe-Cuccinelli battle is the year’s singular political donnybrook.
In the normally genteel realm of Old Dominion politics, it’s almost impossible to imagine a sharper contrast for Virginia voters. In one corner is McAuliffe, the influential Democrat who served as chairman of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.
In the other corner is Cuccinelli. A homegrown Virginian steeped in the virtues of limited government, he has challenged his own party establishment almost as freely as he has taken on the vested interests in Washington. As such, he is a dream candidate for grass-roots conservatives.
“In my 50 years at the national conservative-movement level,” says conservative-movement icon Richard Viguerie, “nobody I’ve seen would rank higher than Ken. He’s obviously a candidate for the future.” Cuccinelli, he says, with his willingness to challenge the entrenched interests in either party, “is as good as it gets.”
The election is already shaping up as a battle royal. When Bob McDonnell, Virginia’s outgoing Republican governor, won in 2009, his victory put the brakes on the Obama administration’s momentum.
This year, Republicans hope a Cuccinelli victory can do the same. The race is expected to be a bare-knuckled brawl.
Democrats plan to do to Cuccinelli what Barack Obama did to Mitt Romney in Ohio — define him as an extremist out of touch with everyday voters. They are already charging that he wasted his time on social issues, when most Virginians really care about the economy.
“Democrats are going to clearly try to portray Ken Cuccinelli as an extreme, right-wing ideologue. As a Democrat, I would argue that he is,” says Mo Elleithee, a Democratic strategist, at a panel discussion hosted by The Associated Press.
Or as McAuliffe himself recently told the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “Virginia voters have repeatedly made clear that they prefer mainstream leaders building consensus instead of politicians pursuing their own ideological agenda.”
Given McAuliffe’s status as a fundraiser par excellence — he raised about $8 million just for his failed run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2009 — he probably will have enough money to drive his message home.
It should be noted, however, that Democrats also tagged McDonnell with the “extremist” label in 2009, and he won by a landslide.
Everyone who knows Cuccinelli says the one thing he won’t do in the face of the impending barrage is back away from his convictions. And for that characteristic, he can probably thank his upbringing.
uccinelli was born on July 30, 1968 in Edison, N.J., the child of an Irish-American mother and an Italian-American father, both native-born Americans. “I look Italian,” he jokes, “but I act Irish” — a reference to his reputation in Virginia for always being ready to fight for a cause he believes in.
When Ken was about 2 years old, the family relocated to northern Virginia. His father, Ken, was a chemical engineer who spent 18 years working for the American Gas Association. The Cuccinelli boys — Ken, Kevin, and Kris — had a typical suburban upbringing. Younger brother Kevin remembers a bit of a bossy older sibling. “We definitely competed with everything. Who sat down at the kitchen table first, who got to the car first,” he recalls. “We did sports the whole time growing up, but certainly were not star athletes.”
Their parents did not buy into the notion that coddling and low expectations developed character. Kevin remembers thinking that his parents were stricter than others in their Kirby Road neighborhood near the Arlington-Falls Church border.
The parents still tell stories about the high expectations their firstborn son had for himself. At age 9, the future attorney general was featured on the cover of a magazine about exceptional kids. “He was his own toughest critic,” recalls his mother, Maribeth. “And he did handle it well, but he was still a kid at the time. Frustration was certainly an issue for him. Over time, he learned how to channel that into a positive approach to problems.”
Their three-bedroom home was just 750 square feet total. “Our line was you couldn’t change your mind in it,” the elder Ken recalls.
The Cuccinellis unapologetically inculcated their three boys with their values, steeped in the Catholic faith. When their precocious first son was ready to attend high school, the parents wanted him to go to Gonzaga College High School, the Jesuit institution in northwest Washington, D.C., whose motto is “Forming men for others.” But young Ken was interested in attending nearby McLean High School, where his friends would be going.
The parents intervened. They helped their son write a list of the pros and cons of each school. After a period of reflection, Ken announced he had made a decision: He would attend Gonzaga.
At Gonzaga, Cuccinelli’s education included classes in social justice. The emphasis throughout much of the school’s curriculum was on perceiving how Christ was at work in the world at large. It was there that he began to ponder larger questions about what he would do with his life.
From Gonzaga, Cuccinelli went on to the University of Virginia, where he was an engineering major.
One night in 1989, he was up late cramming for a calculus exam when he heard a bloodcurdling scream. As told by the Washington Post’s David Montgomery, a terrified co-ed in an adjacent bedroom had awakened to find a strange man clambering onto her bed. She screamed, rolled off the bed, and ran for her life. Cuccinelli and others came to her aid, as the intruder escaped out a window.
After Cuccinelli’s brush with the college pandemic of sexual assault, he felt a moral responsibility. He teamed up with Alexia Pittas, a women’s studies major, to demand that UVA do more to ensure co-eds’ safety.
Pittas says she and Cuccinelli were complete political opposites. “At first we were a little suspicious about why this Catholic conservative was involved in a women’s issue,” she says.
But involved he was, so much so that he helped organize an April 1991 demonstration on the steps of Thomas Jefferson’s vaunted rotunda. There, along with dozens of other students, they held a 134-hour candlelight vigil — one for each alleged campus assault the year before. They demanded the university fund a full-time education coordinator and counselor dedicated to combating campus sexual assaults.
In response, UVA’s administration informed Pittas and Cuccinelli that they were subject to arrest for protesting without a permit. Given that both Pittas and Cuccinelli had applied to law school, an arrest would be consequential. Feeling she had no choice, Pittas decided to stay on the steps of the rotunda until the police dragged her away. But she had no reason to believe Cuccinelli would follow suit.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked him when he insisted on staying.
“This isn’t your issue.” Cuccinelli’s reply: “This is everyone’s issue.”
The future attorney general was betting the administration would avoid the PR nightmare an arrest would entail, and he was right. The university backed down and hired the education coordinator — who still serves the university community 20 years later.
Today Pittas, now a successful attorney in Savannah, Ga., raves about the character of the man whose politics she doesn’t like at all. “The one thing about Ken,” she tells Newsmax, “is that he is a man who lives by his convictions. If he believes something is right, or just, he will pursue it to its logical end.
“He will not be dissuaded for political reasons, political gain, or harm. He can be persuaded by reason. But he is not going to change his mind for just political expedience.”
It was during his UVA years that Cuccinelli began to take a keen interest in politics. The source for this fact is unassailable: Dr. Larry S. Sabato, the director of the university’s esteemed Center for Politics.
When Sabato serves up political analysis for the national media, he ordinarily does so from afar. But his perspective on Cuccinelli is a little different. Sabato remembers gazing out at his Introduction to American Politics class and seeing Cuccinelli there as a student, hanging on his every word. That was pretty unusual for an engineering major.
“I don’t know that he realized one day he would be a candidate, but he clearly had political instincts,” says Sabato, who says he has warned Cuccinelli his strong stands on some issues mightturn off moderate voters. “He’s always been very bright,” says Sabato. “You don’t want to go into an argument with Ken Cuccinelli unprepared, because you will lose.”
The future conservative champion was apparently still finding himself politically. He served an internship for then-Gov. Doug Wilder, a Democrat, during his UVA years. “He doesn’t mention that very often,” Sabato quips. Cuccinelli and Wilder continue to be friends until this day. In his final year at UVA, Cuccinelli became engaged to Alice Monteiro “Teiro” Davis. She had moved into their neighborhood as a teen, and Cuccinelli had escorted her to the Gonzaga prom. They went their separate ways in college until he called and rekindled their relationship as he approached graduation. Brother Kevin was best man at the wedding held in October 1991 at the St. Aloysius Catholic Church, which is physically connected to Gonzaga. Today, the couple has seven children. They live in rural Prince William County.
By the time Cuccinelli was in law school at George Mason University, his political views had solidified. According to Fairfax attorney Chris Day, who met Cuccinelli at law school, Cuccinelli was active in the Federalist Society and campaigned for Republican candidates. The two founded their own law firm in Fairfax City, Cuccinelli and Day. The arrangement gave Cuccinelli the flexibility to be a state senator from true-blue Fairfax County, then later to run for attorney general.
Cuccinelli got into politics after his wife grew tired of hearing his criticisms of other politicians. “I complained about a particular Republican whose district we lived in,” Cuccinelli recalls. “She said, ‘Well, why don’t you run against him?’” Her off-hand comment struck a deep chord. “It’s hard to make me speechless,” he admits, “but she pulled it off that particular day. And that’s kind of where the ball started rolling.”
In 2002, Cuccinelli was elected to the state Senate in a special election. He won re-election in 2003, but had a tough go of it with the Democratic ascendency of 2007. He was declared the winner by just 101 votes. He would later joke that being a Republican state senator from northern Virginia qualified him for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Cuccinelli won his first bid for office in 2009, garnering 58 percent of the vote for attorney general as part of the wave that swept McDonnell into the executive mansion.
Cuccinelli, who contends that an attorney general should defend state prerogatives rather than acting as a mere plaintiff’s lawyer for the establishment, was a whirlwind of jurisprudence during his first three months in office.
He sought judicial review of the EPA’s effort to declare carbon dioxide a dangerous pollutant; issued the controversial advice, in accordance with the findings of five previous attorneys general, that public Virginia colleges and universities could not establish sexual orientation as a protected civil rights class without the general assembly empowering them to do so; and subpoenaed the University of Virginia to cough up documents related to a controversial climate researcher in order to determine if he had fraudulently obtained taxpayer-funded grant money.
But the lawsuit he filed in 2010 challenging the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — was Cuccinelli’s biggest case.
Cuccinelli was convinced that the Commerce Clause did not give the federal government power to force citizens to purchase health insurance. When he first received the news that the Roberts court had upheld healthcare reform’s individual mandate as a tax, he says he was “utterly deflated” and called it a “dark day for the American people.” But as he dug into the opinion, he appreciated the protections from federal overreach the opinion offered. He concluded it was actually a mixed verdict, though one he continues to call “a tremendous loss for American liberty.”
Today, Cuccinelli is fighting Obamacare by other means, urging states to opt out of establishing health-insurance exchanges. He says the federal regulations governing the exchanges are too inflexible, and he is especially concerned that once states set up exchanges, they won’t be able to exit the program.
Cuccinelli emerged from the bruising healthcare reform battle having earned the enduring affection of his party’s base. But whether he can translate that into a victory in November is a major question.
“Ken knows my views on this because I’ve told him,” says his college professor, Sabato. “He has taken a number of highly controversial stands on hot-button social issues: climate change, abortion, gay rights.
“This is a moderate state. Those positions do not go down well here. Now, you have to balance that with some other positions he’s taken that do go down well. He’s become a consumer advocate, for example. He’s gone after the power companies about their electric rates. He is an advocate for inmates who have been improperly convicted.
“These are not things you normally associate with a hardcore conservative. So it’s a balance, and it really depends on the skill with which his campaign defines him.”
cAuliffe, of course, has problems of his own, including defending Democratic positions he has supported on abortion, healthcare reform, and spending. Such stances may go over in McLean where he lives, but they figure to receive a chilly reception outside northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. “McAuliffe is going to have some of the problems that Mitt Romney had in 2012, John Kerry had in 2004, and Al Gore had in 2000,” says Viguerie. “He can’t take his beliefs that he’s held for 30 years into Virginia. He’s got very different views that he’s campaigned on and supported for 30 years, than Virginia’s prepared to accept.” Whether McAuliffe can finally prove himself a viable political contender is unknown.
A businessman and Democratic strategist who has never before held elective office, McAuliffe entered the 2008 Democratic primary as the front-runner. He raised and spent a staggering amount of money in just five months, yet lost to Democratic State Sen. Creigh Deeds by a whopping 23 points. Deeds, in turn, was drubbed by McDonnell in the general election by 18 points.
“It was a disaster,” says Sabato of McAuliffe’s primary run. “He was a heavy front-runner to begin with, but frankly, a lot of Democrats didn’t like him. And they still don’t. But they will all rally behind him, because they really don’t like Cuccinelli.”
That Cuccinelli has no intention of diluting his principles to win an election was evident one brisk Friday in December, when he trekked into U.S. District Court in Alexandria to fight what was termed a “massive overreach” by the EPA. In 2009, the agency had declared carbon dioxide a hazardous pollutant. Now, it appeared to be on the verge of doing the same thing with water.
What brought Cuccinelli to court that day was an EPA edict ordering Fairfax County to reduce by half the amount of rainwater running into a vital waterway, Accotink Creek. The EPA’s objective was to protect bottom-dwelling worms and insects that are important to the ecosystem.
But the $300 million cost of diverting the water, including the construction of storm sewers, and eminent domain cases to tear down homes near the waterway, left even Fairfax County’s liberal-leaning board of supervisors aghast. Feeling enough was enough, they had uncharacteristically joined forces with Cuccinelli.
“You know it’s bad when a partisan Democrat board of supervisors like Fairfax County will join us to sue the EPA,” Cuccinelli says.
Cuccinelli believed the EPA could not regulate water flow as a pollutant under the Clean Water Act because, well, water was what the act was written to protect. He had barely launched into his opening statement when federal Judge Liam O’Grady jumped in, challenging his familiarity with the regulatory precedent. Hadn’t the state agreed to regulate water flow in a 1999 EPA consent decree? he asked.
“No, your honor,” Cuccinelli replied without missing a beat. “It was not water flow that was addressed in that consent decree. And Virginia was not a party to that consent decree.”
What the federal agency was proposing, the attorney general charged, was a “novel attempt” at a “tremendous expansion” of its authority. He said the EPA was relying on a correlation between rainwater and sediment to justify tough limits on water flow.
“They can do that constitutionally,” Cuccinelli declared. “But only if Congress allows that. Congress has not allowed that.”
O’Grady nodded slightly in response to each point being made. In January, the judge ruled the EPA must not “be allowed to exceed its clearly limited statutory authority,” and declared that the Clean Water Act “does not give them the authority to regulate nonpollutants.” It was a key victory in Cuccinelli’s ongoing battle against federal regulatory encroachment.
It is Cuccinelli’s willingness to fight no matter the odds that has so endeared him to the GOP’s base.
“I love him,” says Tea Party Express Chairwoman Amy Kremer. “I think he is a good principled conservative. He understands the importance of the movement and is not afraid to go out there and speak his mind and push back on the establishment.”
“Ken is a bulldog,” said Virginia House of Delegates member John Cosgrove to attendees at a Cuccinelli fundraiser held in Virginia Beach. “He is tenacious. He has absolute conservative Republican blood running through every vein in his body.”
Grass-roots groups have demonstrated their determination to fight for the man who fights for them. In June, they took over the state party’s rulemaking central committee and changed the nominating process from an open primary, which even Democrats could vote in, to a convention nomination. Conventions always favor activists. Virginia’s current lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling, saw he had no chance at winning a vote in convention. He dropped his challenge, and Cuccinelli’s fight for the nomination was over before it began.
Sabato, a neutral observer of Old Dominion politics, says the general election will come down to two numbers: 75 and 40. In recent presidential contests, about 75 percent of Virginia voters turned out to vote. But in the off-off year election that brought McDonnell to power, the turnout was closer to 40 percent. “If this is a 40 percent turnout election, Cuccinelli’s got a good chance,” says Sabato.
If Cuccinelli can manage to reverse the GOP’s slide in the Old Dominion — Obama carried Virginia by 4 points in November, and Democrats have won the last three U.S. Senate races there — it would go a long way toward salving the painful wounds that conservatives endured in November.
Cuccinelli is confident. Pointing to his 10 years in state politics, he predicts McAuliffe will be “overmatched very badly.” He adds: “I’m more of an engineer with a law degree than I am a lawyer with an engineering degree, in terms of how I think. And I will spreadsheet Terry McAuliffe to death.” Back in Cuccinelli’s office, not far from the Gadsden flag, are several portraits of George Washington. One is an image of an exhausted Washington in winter slumped over his horse, another shows him issuing commands, sword in hand.
Asked if the most famous Virginian is also his favorite founder, Cuccinelli shakes his head. As much as he admires Washington, he points to another picture, that of Patrick Henry delivering his famous “Give me liberty, or give me death” oration.
Cuccinelli notes that Henry delivered his famous broadside against tyranny in 1775 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, right down the street from where the attorney general’s headquarters stands today.
It was Henry, Cuccinelli adds, who opposed the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. A champion of keeping states independent of the federal government, Henry feared the new Union would evolve into a monarchy. Henry’s opposition to the Constitution posed a dilemma for James Madison: He could either agree to the Bill of Rights that he considered unnecessary, or risk losing ratification.
Madison compromised, and the Bill of Rights was added. Henry, on the other hand, lost his bid to stop ratification.
“That was one battle worth losing,” Cuccinelli observes. He sounds ready for the fight.
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