WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WNCN) – Family members of a man exonerated years after his conviction in a rape case are calling on the Forsyth County District Attorney to stop highlighting the case in advertisements in his campaign for state attorney general.
Joseph Abbitt was convicted in 1995 of raping two girls in Winston-Salem but was exonerated in 2009 due to new DNA evidence.
Christine Mumma, an attorney and Republican candidate for attorney general, worked on Abbitt’s case, helping to secure his release from his prison.
One of her opponents in the race, Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill (R), has brought attention to the case in commercials and materials mailed to voters’ homes criticizing her for working to free a “convicted child rapist.”
“Everybody I’ve talked to has been shocked by this,” said Mumma, who is also executive director of the NC Center for Actual Innocence. “It’s complete misrepresentation against somebody who can’t defend themselves.”
Abbitt died in a car crash in 2015.
His brothers started to see the ads in recent weeks and are calling on O’Neill to stop running them.
“After it sunk in, you know, it brought back all those memories and love that I had for my brother. And, of course, I’ve broken down and cried because I’m sitting there saying, it was a hard time for him when he was alive,” said Thurmond Abbitt.
Just over a year after his release from prison, Winston-Salem police said they retested evidence in the case in an effort to find the true rapist. They said at the time, Abbitt remained their prime suspect despite his exoneration.
O’Neill was appointed district attorney in November 2009, two months after Abbitt’s exoneration, and has been re-elected to the office since then, continuing to serve as district attorney to this day.
After police came forward with their announcement about the evidence in Abbitt’s case, O’Neill never pursued new charges against him.
“I went back to the attorney general’s office to determine whether we could bring charges forth. And, unfortunately, the rule of double jeopardy prohibits us from going forward and prosecuting him again. Otherwise, I can assure you, Joseph Abbitt would have been charged and tried again for the rape of those two little girls,” O’Neill said. “The bottom line is Christine Mumma got it wrong in this case, got it flat out wrong.”
Mumma responded, “If they really believed it was Joseph Abbitt, they could have charged him with breaking and entering. They could have charged him with something that he wasn’t charged with originally.”
Mumma said the new DNA evidence was from a sheet on a bed in the home where the rapes occurred.
“The mother had testified at the original trial 15 years prior that she had had sexual relations with Joseph,” Mumma said. “The DNA from the rape kit is what is relevant DNA in this case. That’s the probative evidence. There’s no explanation for how that DNA in that rape kit is a male profile that does not match him.”
O’Neill brought up previous cases involving Abbitt, saying he’d just learned about them in recent days.
“Twice prior he had been charged with first-degree rape in Winston-Salem, unrelated cases, and was allowed to plead down guilty to something else,” O’Neill said. “This was Christine Mumma’s case, and it shows the judgment that she has when she comes in and tries to tell the world that this was an innocent person wrongfully convicted.”
Mumma said, “He doesn’t get it. Even his justifications continue to attack a deceased man who was declared innocent.”
O’Neill also has highlighted Mumma’s admonishment by the N.C. State Bar in 2016. As CBS17 reported at the time, she was accused of violating privacy in a murder case by taking a water bottle for DNA testing. The Bar had accused her of conduct involving “dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.” She pointed out the Bar dismissed those more serious allegations in issuing the admonishment.
Republican Sam Hayes is also seeking his party’s nomination. The winner of the primary will take on incumbent Atty. Gen. Josh Stein (D) in November.
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