Marvin Anderson heard the sentence, and the courtroom turned dark. He couldn’t see his mother, even though he’d turned around to face her. The number echoed.
Two hundred and ten years in prison. Marvin was 18, and the sentence was almost 12 times as long as he’d been alive.
Soon, he found himself sitting alone in a holding cell, still wearing his suit from court, paralyzed with disbelief. He couldn’t understand what had happened.
He might never be free again.
He would never go to Lee-Davis High School as a senior, never wear the school’s football jersey on his back, never become a paid firefighter and never again play baseball with his younger brother, Maurice.
All of his plans scattered, as nothing but prison loomed ahead. All because of a vicious crime that he didn’t commit.
How could it have happened? he asked himself. He hadn’t done anything wrong.
A woman who Marvin didn’t know said he had held her captive in a patch of woods close to the apartment complex in Ashland where they both lived. The 24-year-old woman identified him, testified that he had raped her twice, threatened to shoot her, and degraded her in almost every way possible over several hours on a hot July evening in 1982.
Marvin felt bad for her, because she was obviously traumatized, but he knew he hadn’t done it. And yet the Ashland police and the Hanover County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office believed he did. So did the victim, who said his face would always haunt her.
In the end, Marvin Anderson — and what happened to him after his conviction in December 1982 — would haunt the victim, as well as many others who were in the county courthouse that day.
Marvin knew he was innocent, but no one else knew that for sure. Now he had been convicted of a horrible crime — a monstrous act — that another person had committed. He was sentenced to spend two centuries in prison. How could this have happened? And how could he survive it?
The oldest of six siblings, including one brother who died at six weeks old, Marvin was an athletic boy, playing softball, baseball, basketball and football, along with his brother Maurice, born two years later. Whereas Maurice was more of a joker, Marvin was quieter, says his mother, Joan. The boys were together most of the time as they grew up in eastern Hanover County, along Route 301 near the courthouse and the fire station. Cousins, aunts and uncles, including one who invited the boys of Marvin’s generation to the fire station to hang out and more particularly to keep out of trouble, were a fixture in the Anderson kids’ lives, even when they moved to Ashland around 1977.
Marvin moved a little farther away after middle school, attending REACT, an alternative high school in Richmond’s Manchester neighborhood, and living with his uncle in the city’s North Side for two years. For the first time, he found teachers who loved to teach, who were supportive of their students and were able to work with them more closely because of small class sizes. Some of the students there had misbehavior in their background, but Marvin went to the school to get a fresh start and more individual help, his mother says. The other kids were just regular high school students, and Marvin felt lucky to be among them.
In the summer of 1982, between working for his grandfather’s landscaping company and running the Time Shaft ride at Kings Dominion, Marvin started training to be a paid firefighter, a job he’d prepared for since age 13. As a junior volunteer firefighter, he’d felt the adrenaline rush of entering a burning house. When he heard the alarm, he’d cut through his grandparents’ yard and run to the station.
His mother worried, but there was only so much she could do to keep Marvin away from firefighting.
Marvin also had fallen in love. At 24, Stephanie was six years older, but this was no unrequited crush. In January, they started living together at the garden-style Ashland Towne Square Apartments, the town’s first apartment complex, not far from Marvin’s mother and younger siblings’ apartment. He had given her an engagement ring a couple of weeks earlier on her birthday, and they were talking about their future, starting a family.
Life was good on that balmy Saturday evening in July, as he played second base in a church-league softball game. Afterward, he pulled his fiancée’s car around to the parking lot in front of his mother’s apartment, where there was a bright streetlight, and began washing and waxing the car in a leisurely fashion around 8 p.m.
One of his sisters was watching cartoons, and a couple of neighbors sat outside, taking in the summer night. An hour later, Marvin came home to Stephanie.