A man wrongfully convicted of a 1979 rape, exonerated by DNA testing and who is now seriously ill from cancer was released — much to his surprise — from the custody of the Virginia Department of Corrections on Monday.
The Virginia Parole Board last week approved a conditional compassionate release for Calvin Wayne Cunningham, 68, according to his lawyer, who did not want him to die in prison. A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections’ confirmed that he was to be released Monday.
Cunningham is suffering from stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and his lawyer, Jon Sheldon of Fairfax, said the release came as a complete surprise to Cunningham, who was moved from the security care unit at VCU Medical Center to another ward in the hospital Monday afternoon.
“He didn’t know anything,” Sheldon said. “He didn’t know we had asked for his release. He didn’t know his release had been granted and he was overwhelmed. I thought that Calvin knew that we were in the process of advocating for his release, and Calvin didn’t know anything.”
Sheldon said Cunningham did not have access to a telephone and no one had informed him of the effort to get him out of prison. He said it is still unclear when Cunningham will be able to leave the hospital to live with his daughter, Alicia Randall, of Portsmouth.
“He is no longer an inmate. He is on probation; he does have conditions,” Sheldon said. The conditions include him either remaining in the hospital or living with his daughter. Sheldon said, “Anyway, the good news is, he was released.”
The prognosis at this point has not been determined. But, Sheldon said, “It doesn’t look good.” It was last week that test results showed he was seriously ill from cancer and his course of treatment has yet to be determined, he said.
Sheldon filed a petition for emergency compassionate release for Cunningham with the parole board. Cunningham was serving sentences for grand larceny, contempt of court, obstructing justice and falsely identifying himself to law enforcement.
A former Virginia Commonwealth University student, Cunningham was exonerated of his Newport News rape and burglary convictions in 2011 as part of Virginia’s post-conviction DNA testing program.
Cunningham told the Richmond Times-Dispatch last year that following his 1988 parole from prison from the wrongful rape conviction — the result of mistaken victim identification — he could not find employment. He said he turned to drugs and his life spiraled out of control.
He went back to prison in 1999, 2001, 2005 and 2009, and his projected release date was not until 2023. He told The Times-Dispatch that he was hopeful he could be compensated for his time in prison for the crimes he did not commit.
Sheldon heard about the case last year and agreed to help Cunningham in his effort to win compensation.