WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (WRIC) — 32-years after a crime that made headlines, Debbie Smith came face to face with her attacker in prison.

The Williamsburg resident became known nationwide after she was a victim of a brutal rape in her own backyard, endured an embarrassing courtroom battle that put DNA evidence to the test and wrote the law for victims of sexual assault.

But perhaps her biggest challenge was confronting the man who raped her. She spoke exclusively with 8News about it.

“When I left there, the only words I could say to my husband was, I am finally free,” said an emotional Debbie Smith.

Debbie Smith spoke with 8News reporter Kerri O’Brien. (Photo: Forrest Shelor/WRIC)

For years, she had been blaming herself for a brutal rape in broad daylight even though everyone around her told her it wasn’t her fault.

“He stopped and he said, Debbie please none of this was your fault. I should have never come into your home your castle, your private home, you did absolutely nothing wrong that day. Those are words I thought, I would never hear. To hear it from the person who was responsible, that is what made the difference. That is what set me free. And knowing that, I know longer need to be afraid of this man,” she said.

In 1989, Norman Jimmerson walked into Smith’s Skipwith Farms home in Williamsburg. He grabbed her from behind and dragged her into the woods where he sexually assaulted her while her husband, a police officer, was asleep upstairs after working a midnight shift.

“His whole demeanor was different,” said Smith. The last time Smith saw Jimmerson was in a courtroom. He never spoke. Yet last month, she was able sit down with her attacker her for a five-hour conversation at Nottoway Correctional Center- at her request.

The main reason she sought the conversation, she said, “was because with the woman that I work with that have been sexual assaulted, I teach them about forgiveness. I do believe that I have forgiven him. I knew that I had as soon as he walked in the room. I didn’t feel like I wanted to jump up and say why did you do this to me? I saw a man. I just had to know that that forgiveness was absolutely real so that when I work with these woman, I can tell them for sure that I know in my heart that I have forgiven him.”

Smith says he apologized often during the conversation. “Several times he said I did not have the right. All I was looking for was my next hit and that is all I cared about,” she said.

After showing a lack of remorse in court and years of denying his guilt, Smith says Jimmerson is owning up to the crime. He came clean to his family. “He had already told his family the truth and that was huge to me,” she said.

Before their meeting at the prison, Smith admits she didn’t know what would happen.

“I went in skeptical,” she said. She told Jimmerson how his actions shattered her life and everyone around her. She told him how the crime destroyed her sense of safety and caused her to contemplate suicide.

Smith told 8News, “He said, to me how can I redeem this in your life? And I told him, you can’t. I have to be honest, you just can’t. He said sorry doesn’t do it, but it’s all I got. It was very genuine.”

She told 8News she believes he is a changed man, “He said, my main goal is to become the man of god I was meant to be. And I told, I said to him, there’s my justice.”

For a long time, Smith lived in fear that Jimmerson would come back. The crime remained unsolved for six years until Virginia’s newly established DNA data bank got a hit in 1995 off of a DNA sample recovered at the scene. It connected Jimmerson to the case.

Virginia’s DNA database was the first of its kind in the country and changed forever the way detectives solve crimes. “It is kind of like the gold standard for these investigators,” said Smith.

At the DNA databank in Richmond Brad Jenkins, Forensic Biology Program Manager for the Virginia Department of Forensic Science, showed us how evidence collected from a scene is processed for a DNA profile.

He also demonstrated how samples, like those in Smith’s case, are processed and uploaded to the DNA library in search of a match. “The database is now about 500,000 samples. We get about 70 to 80 matches a month,” said Jenkins.

This year, the Virginia Department of Forensic Science is celebrating a milestone: its 15,000th DNA Data bank hit. “We’re really excited about that. Those are actual investigative leads for the police agencies,” said Jenkins.

Smith has been a huge advocate for DNA testing. She successfully fought to provide federal funding to crime labs across the U.S. with the Debbie Smith Act. “I believe that we have still only scratched the service of what this science can do,” said Smith.

The science has already come a long way since Smith’s case. “Back in the day you need a blood stain about the size quarter to get a DNA typing result. And now, if you touch an item with your hand, you may leave enough DNA behind,” Jenkins said.

As Smith reflects and processes that prison conversation made possible through the Virginia Department of Corrections Victim Offender Dialogue program, Smith says she finally feels like she’s healing. “There’s no winners here. But for the first time since all this started, I sort of feel like the winner. I feel like I have victory because I fought the fight not only to be able see him but I fought the fight to be whole again,” she said.

Jimmerson is up for parole next year. Smith will get a chance to weigh in and says she honestly doesn’t know what she will say. She really believes her offender is a changed man but she says it would be a heavy burden to carry if she’s wrong and he were to hurt someone else.