Elmer Daniels

In 1980, then-18-year-old Elmer Daniels of Wilmington was convicted of raping a 15-year-old girl and sentenced to life in prison.

After spending decades behind bars for a crime he claims he didn't commit, his attorney said his client would have died in prison had he not gotten involved.

Emeka Igwe first met his client two-and-a-half years ago at an expungement clinic at a church during the eight months Daniels was free on parole. As part of his parole, Daniels was required to obtain employment and take classes.

"He obtained employment at Famous Dave's in Wilmington when a police agency called over to the establishment and said that he was a convicted sex offender and they were going to come out and put up posters so patrons know he's a convicted sex offender--as a result, he lost his employment," explained Igwe.

He received a second parole violation after failing to accept responsibility for his crime in order to receive a certificate of completion for his classes.

"He refused to because he's always maintained his innocence...that sent him back to jail," said Igwe.

Igwe, who's working for Daniels pro bono, said he uncovered flawed testimony and that shows Daniels was wrongfully convicted and incarcerated.

"Mr. Daniels is not someone getting out on a technicality, he's not a guilty person getting out on a technicality, rather he's an innocent man, and we have provided empirical evidence that establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Daniels is, in fact, innocent."

Igwe obtained transcripts from 1978, wherein the state's key witness identified Daniels as the perpetrator of the rape, claiming they attended the same eighth grade math class.

"When we got involved, we noticed there was a three-year age difference between the state's key witness, who was 15 at the time, and our client, who was 18 at the time; we obtained the school transcripts of our client and we were able to prove that our client was, in fact, in 10th grade Wilmington High School back in 1978."

A second piece of evidence uncovered was flawed testimony by FBI Agent Michael P. Malone.

"[Malone] testified in Mr. Daniels case, falsely, that he was able to match the victim's hair on clothing items belonging to Mr. Daniels and he was able to find Mr. Daniels on clothing items belonging to the victim. When we got involved, we requested that the FBI review the transcripts for Mr. Daniels, and the FBI in conjunction with the United States Department of Justice...found significant errors and wrote a letter to Attorney General Matt Denn informing him of the errors on January 31, 2018. "

Despite that letter, Igwe maintains the state did not move on the case, and Igwe had to work to uncover documents himself.

"To this day they've refused to give us any piece of evidence, any piece of discovery materials on Mr. Daniel's case; we obtained all the documents, and we gave them no choice but to dismiss the indictment; this is not something they're doing out of their benevolence, but through our investigation, we have been able to prove, again, beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Daniels is, in fact, innocent."

He also pointed to a court-appointed psychiatrist who examined Mr. Daniels prior to trial.

"Because he was given access to the witness statement, he was able to notice discrepancies between the witnesses' description of her assailant and Mr. Daniels; she stated that her assailant had bitten fingernails all the way down to the cuticles; he was prepared to testify that Mr. Daniels had well-manicured nails which haven't been habitually bitten. He also stated that Mr. Daniels had a narrow nose while the victim had a broad nose," said Igwe. "And he took the extraordinary step...he felt compelled to write the trial judge and [carbon copy] Mr. Daniel's trial attorney and the prosecuting attorney about his doubts as to Mr. Daniels being the correct assailant of the victim."

Hair, semen, blood and fingerprint evidence had been destroyed by the state while Daniels fought for his life pro se, according to Igwe, who added that evidence could have exonerated his client long ago.

Igwe claims his client was the victim of race relations in the 1980s.

"Mr. Daniels was an 18-year-old black male, who was accused of raping a 15-year-old white female; he was prosecuted by a white prosecutor; he was defended in adequately by a white defense attorney; he was convicted by an all-white jury, and he was sentenced to life by a white judge," said Igwe. "So race relations have a lot to do with how Mr. Daniels was treated. Even after his conviction and him being given a life sentence, he was denied appellate counsel."

Daniels' attorney said his client was first offered a commutation, and then, a pardon.

"We refused both the commutation and the pardon because my client is innocent."

Nine months later, the state filed a Motion to Dismiss the Indictment against Daniels, which is in a judge's hand. The Delaware Department of Justice had no further comment.  

A ruling could come as early as this week--just in time for Mr. Daniels to celebrate his birthday as a free man.

"What a great birthday present it would be to him if he gets released on or before December 12," said Daniels.

Upon gaining his freedom, Daniels is expected to move to Maryland with his girlfriend and become an advocate for criminal justice reform, including the preservation of evidence as well as compensation for the wrongfully incarcerated.

"There's nothing the state can do to give back Mr. Daniels the 39 years that he spent in jail; the least they can do is one, give him an apology, and number two, do the best they can, financially, to compensate him for the 39 years of his life that he had to spend in jail." 

Amy Cherry is the Assistant News Director and an investigative journalist at WDEL. She joined WDEL's award-winning news team in 2010 from WBZ Newsradio 1030 in Boston and has received national accolades for reporting.