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Buried deep in microfilm court records once thought to have been lost or destroyed, convicted rapist John W. Hill found a document that he believed could set him free.

Hill had been charged with two rapes in 1982, cases that were never prosecuted until being revived by the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office in 2014 as Hill neared release from prison on unrelated charges. Despite no physical evidence, Hill was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 25 years in prison last year.

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But after his conviction, Hill discovered an old document that showed the case had been dropped in the 1980s. A brief notation indicated a "Hicks" problem — referring to a violation of speedy trial rules.

On Monday Judge Thomas J.S. Waxter Jr. denied Hill's appeal, saying the old document was not enough to nullify the jury verdict.

"This court is satisfied that the two victims in this case will never be able to extinguish the anguish and memories of these events and that, while mistakes may have been made in the delayed prosecution of the defendant, [Hill] did receive a full and fair trial in 2015 and an opportunity for the state to prove its charges," Waxter wrote in his ruling.

The allegations dated to Jan. 2, 1982, when two women were walking home through Southwest Baltimore and taken at gunpoint to a wooded area behind St. Agnes Hospital. Both were raped.

One of the women hit her attacker in the head with a bottle, and he ran off after shooting her in the arm.

At the time Hill was charged, he was already being held on unrelated charges in Montgomery County. His Baltimore case was dropped, and he was sentenced to eight years in prison on a weapons charge in Montgomery.

Hill was eventually released and free until 1995, when he was charged with a kidnapping in Harford County. He would be sentenced to 30 years for that case.

With his mandatory release date nearing, Hill was told he was being held on a warrant for the Baltimore case and petitioned to be released, saying the case had been dropped. But dropped cases can be re-charged, and Baltimore authorities tracked down the victims and re-investigated the case. A new indictment was filed — 33 years after the original crime.

There was no physical evidence or documentation from the original case file, according to court records. The victims also could not identify Hill as their attacker.

Instead, the strength of the case was in Mack Johnson, an inmate awaiting sentencing for a federal burglary conviction, who told police detectives that Hill was a friend and had told him about the crime. Johnson said Hill had described raping two teenage girls near St. Agnes Hospital, and shooting one of them after she hit him with a bottle.

Hill was convicted of all counts.

Investigators had searched for any documents related to the original case and came up empty. But after Hill's sentencing, 183 pages on microfilm were discovered. Among them was a form noting the case had been dropped, with a notation that read "Hicks problem."

"Because of that dismissal, for that reason, the state could not indict" again, Hill's attorney, public defender Natasha Moody argued.

Moody said it was a violation of Hill's due process rights and "bad faith" on the state's part to bring the case 30 years later. The lack of evidence put Hill at a disadvantage for challenging the viability of the evidence that might've existed, she said.

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Assistant State's Attorney Gavin Patashnick, who tried Hill's case in 2015, had argued that the unearthed document was too inconclusive to undo the conviction.

"At the end of the day, the defendant is asking for the court to override the judgment of 12 men and women — who found the defendant guilty of two brutal rapes — based on a hunch," Patashnick said.

Hill asked to address Waxter during a hearing earlier this month. He noted that the victims had not identified him as their attacker, as well as the lack of physical evidence. He said the amount of time that had passed had made it impossible for him to call witnesses or account for his whereabouts.

"The reason my criminal case was 'nolle prossed' was not known," Hill told Waxter. "Now, we do know."

In his ruling, Waxter said the reasons remain unclear. He said the microfilm records showed Hill was being evaluated at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital for a competency evaluation in 1982, and there was "obvious agreement" for a delay in Hill's trial at that time.

"This court finds no persuasive evidence that the nolle pros was issued for the purpose of evading Hicks," Waxter wrote.

"The court is fully satisfied that the defendant received a delayed but fair trial, and that under all the circumstances, justice has been done and there is no legitimate reason to set aside the jury's verdict in this case."

An earlier version misidentified the name of the judge. The Sun regrets the error.

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