A Winston-Salem man who was exonerated after spending more than a decade in prison for rape has died in a traffic accident.

Joseph Abbitt, 54, didn't live long after he got his freedom back. He received a life sentence when he was convicted in 1995 after being accused of raping two girls at knifepoint. He served 14 years of that sentence but released in 2009, when DNA from a vaginal swab was found not to be a match.

But that wouldn't be the end of his case. A year later, Winston-Salem police held a press conference to argue that Abbitt had been released too quickly. Police said other DNA evidence from the scene tested after Abbitt's release – testing that was done to help find another suspect – once again pointed to Abbitt as the culprit.

Police never charged him based on that evidence. Even if they had solid evidence, the Constitution's prohibition against double-jeopardy - being charged for the same crime twice - would have made prosecuting Abbitt again difficult.

Abbitt's attorneys stood by his release, arguing that the DNA from the victim's own body was the best evidence. Even the prosecutors supported setting Abbitt free.

Abbitt died in a car crash on Carver School Road late Thursday when the car he was driving struck another vehicle. Witnesses in the second vehicle told police Abbitt was driving north in the southbound lane. Abbitt was alone at the scene. The driver of the other car, Walter Black III, 53, and two passengers in the other vehicle were treated for minor injuries.

Police say the investigation of the crash is continuing.

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