INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Vernon Bateman sat quietly before a parole board last fall as he began weeping and sharing a small piece of what he calls his truth.
“I was bitter and mad at the verdict in 1998, but God stripped that from me and you can see the reflection of my heart."
A softer man now, Bateman asked to be released from prison after serving 15 years for rape. He was first released in 2016 but was sent back after violating the conditions of his parole. His parole officer said he had a cell phone with evidence he had been contacting women for sex.
From the first day he was accused to all these years later, one thing has never changed: Bateman says he did not commit the crime that put him in prison in the first place.
It is a question I still don’t know the answer to, but one I set out to find after one of Bateman’s sisters approached me here at FOX59.
We do an annual Habitat For Humanity Build in our parking lot and one of Bateman’s 14 sisters joined my team in hopes of meeting me. She brought a box of papers in her car and after we built the panels for the home, she asked if she could have another moment of my time.
Valentina Bateman told me her brother had been convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and wanted to know if I would at least look at the evidence.
So I did.
Valentina showed me multiple letters from a co-defendant in the case that said he lied and put Bateman in prison. She showed me a medical record of a rape kit taken of the victim and documents showing the kit was never tested.
I didn’t have enough to even consider if Vernon Bateman was guilty, but the two things convinced me I needed to try to find out more. So, I set out to find the missing rape kit or at least what happened to it. I wanted to talk to the victim, to Bateman and to the co-defendant Sa’Ron Foley. Why would he lie about Bateman and how long had he been writing letters trying to now tell the truth?
What happened in 1998?
Bateman’s family and friends recently went back to the neighborhood where it all happened.
"The neighborhood looks a lot different than it did then--none of this was here," said his sister, Nora.
Nora talked about their life growing up in the projects and said she felt rich even though they didn't have much. They lived near a local beach and often played there. Nora remembers vividly the moment her brother was accused.
"The worst thing is shedding innocent blood. We felt like the whole city knows he was wrongly convicted,” she said.
Vernon Bateman and two others were accused of rape. The victim told detectives she got into a fight with her boyfriend, left her home and started walking down a quiet Gary, Indiana, street in the early morning hours of Jan. 23, 1998.
According to court documents, the woman met three teenagers at the corner of 4th and Gibson in Gary after she walked out of her house. One of the suspects testified there was a deal to exchange sex for crack cocaine, but the victim said there was no deal--she said she was raped at gunpoint. Hospital records show the victim went to the hospital and a rape kit was taken, but we have not been able to find any records of what happened to it or where it is now.
I called several entities trying to track it down, but the hospital spokesperson said they could not comment. Gary police had us contact city attorneys and they told me they didn't have it. Very little is known about the rape kit and why it wasn’t used at trial. Bateman has boxes of his trial records and court documents, including the original medical report.
"I have the hospital report that says a rape kit was taken. I have proof to show that."
That's it, though. He hasn’t been able to locate it or find out where it went or who was the last to have it.
I had no luck either.
The Innocence Project
Finding that rape kit is now a priority for attorneys at the Innocence Project in New York City, but they are swamped with cases. They took a break from this case back in May while they worked two pending death penalty cases.
They tell me they remain adamant that finding that rape kit could prove if Bateman is telling the truth and much more. Bryce Benjet, one of the attorneys on Bateman’s case, says there are three leading causes of wrongful convictions in the United States and Bateman’s case has all three:
- Unvalidated forensics (in this case a DNA kit was never tested)
- Eyewitness misidentification
- False testimony
Sa’Ron Foley, the co-defendant in the case, says he lied about Bateman's involvement. He claims he made false statements about Bateman being with him and taking part in the rape.
"This parole hearing shouldn't be about me, it should be about Vernon Bateman," he told the parole board last fall. "I made a false statement and got a man convicted of a crime I know he didn't do.”
Foley said he lied because of a personal vendetta against Bateman but said he has been trying to make things right for decades. He has written attorneys, a judge, the governor and me. He says no one will listen. When asked by the parole board if he had tried to make it right, he said, “I have been trying every day for 20 years.”
He added that he didn’t know why people weren’t willing to listen.
The rape kit
As for the rape kit, Benjet believes there is a good chance it remains somewhere in Indiana. That evidence holds much more than just the truth about Vernon Bateman.
“What we have learned over 25 years is professional and ethical law enforcement officers hang on to evidence," Benjet said. "In this case there is one person that was never identified, so not only could Bateman be proven innocent, but we could find the person who has evaded justice.”
The Innocence Project believes it will be back in court soon as it tries to find out if that rape kit exists. If it does, attorneys want to have it tested as they hope to find the truth.
Bateman goes back before the parole board in October as he tries to get released from prison. He is even more hopeful a judge will hear his evidence and remove his name from the sex offender registry. It's been the battle of a lifetime.
“Some people don't believe in things they can't see, like my case," he said. "Our generation is not taught to forgive. You forgive, you can grow, but I do want justice. I want justice, but I don't know what to do to get it."
We will be at Bateman’s October parole hearing to find out if he is released.
I also tried to find the victim. I wanted to hear directly from her, but while I have not been able to locate her, I am still trying. The Innocence Project is working on getting a court date to demand authorities answer questions about the rape kit and find out once and for all if it does exist.
In the meantime, I will continue to search for answers and the truth.