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The Death Penalty and Mental Retardation
Murder Convictions Overturned By New Evidence


"This was a whole lot better than I expected."
--Earl Washington Jr., about his first day out of prison after DNA tests cleared him of a murder he confessed to committing 18 years earlier

Earl Washington Jr., was released from prison on February 12, 2001 after spending 18 years behind bars convicted of a rape and murder he did not commit. Tests done on DNA that was found at the crime scene cleared him in the fall of 2000.

Washington, who is considered to have mental retardation, had confessed to police in 1983. Even though much of his confession did not match with evidence found at the scene, Washington was convicted and sentenced to face the death penalty. He was just a few days from execution in 1994, when the governor commuted his sentence to life in prison because of questions regarding the DNA evidence.

July 6: Governor Grants Washington Full Pardon For 1982 Crimes
April 2: Virginia To Pay $1.9 Million To Wrongly Convicted Man
Dec. 20: Earl Washington's Attorneys Suggest Prosecutor Lied To Protect Death Sentence
Dec. 7: Trial Could Mean Justice For Earl Washington, Jr.
June 2: Officer's Estate Wants Earl Washington Case Retried
May 5: Former Death Row Inmate Receives Record Jury Award Over Forced Murder Confession
April 27: Earl Washington Argues Officer Pressured Him To Confess
June 2: Errors In Earl Washington Case Prompt Restructure Of Virginia DNA Lab
May 12: Virginia Governor Orders Review Of DNA Lab Following Errors In Earl Washington Case
Jan. 28: Virginia Challenges Earl Washington's Right To See Investigation Records
July 1: Earl Washington Jr. To Pursue Claims That Officer Falsified Evidence
June 7: Media Groups Join Earl Washington In Suit Over Police Records
April 6: DNA Proves Earl Washington's Innocence, Attorneys Claim
March 18: Earl Washington's Attorney Calls For Prosecutor To Step Down
February 11: Washington Doing Well One Year After Release
February 14: First Days of Freedom for Former Death Row Inmate
February 9:Innocent Man Who Narrowly Escaped Electric Chair To Be Released Monday
November 14: Virginia Legislators to Review Fairness of Death Penalty
October 4: Governor Pardons Former Death Row Inmate on DNA Evidence
September 14: Governor Orders More DNA Testing
June 2: Governor Orders DNA Testing Redone in Murder Case


By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
June 2, 2000
RICHMOND, VIRGINIA--In a rare move yesterday, Governor James S. Gilmore III ordered that new DNA tests be performed to help determine if a man was unjustly convicted of murder 17 years ago. The move is the first time the governor has ordered DNA testing after a person was convicted of a crime.

The case involves Earl Washington Jr who was sentenced to death after he confessed to raping and murdering a woman in 1982. Governor L. Douglas Wilder commuted the sentence to life in prison in 1994, because of doubt as to whether Washington, who reportedly has an IQ of 69, actually did the killing.

Pointing to several irregularities in his confession, his defenders continue to accuse police of asking him leading questions and pressured him to confess. For example, Washington was unable to accurately identify the victim's race, he claimed that he stabbed the woman twice (she was actually stabbed 38 times) and said he killed her alone (she was murdered in front of her two children).

The DNA testing is expected to determine whether bodily fluids found on the woman's body belonged to Washington. The tests are considered much more sophisticated than those done in 1993 which were unable to determine whether or not Washington and another man had sex with the murder victim. If these tests further suggest the man's innocence, Gilmore could pardon him and have him released.

Prosecutors and police stand behind the original confession and say that even if the test results show that he did not rape the woman, it is possible that he could have killed her after somebody else rape her.


By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
September 14, 2000
RICHMOND, VIRGINIA--Gov. Jim Gilmore yesterday ordered more forensic testing and a state police investigation to determine whether or not a man who confessed to a rape and murder actually committed the crime.

The announcement came two days after Gilmore received results of DNA tests for Earl Washington, Jr., who has been in prison for 17 years -- 9 1/2 of those on death row -- for raping and killing 19-year-old Rebecca L. Williams in 1982. Gilmore and Dr. Paul Ferrara, the director of the Virginia Division of Forensic Science who performed the latest tests, refused to discuss the results.

"If they were incriminating, we would have heard about this three months ago," Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project at the Cardoza School of Law in New York, told the Virginian-Pilot.

"Common sense tells you they must have exonerated Earl Washington," said Scheck.

Washington, 40, has been labeled "brain-damaged" and "developmentally disabled". His lawyers say his confession is full of errors, including his telling police Williams was black when she was white. Washington also confessed to three other rapes that he could not have committed, say his attorneys who are trying to get the governor to grant their client a full pardon.

A few days before Washington was scheduled to be executed in 1994, then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder commuted his sentence to life in prison, when DNA tests indicated that semen found at the scene belonged to somebody other than Washington or the victim's husband.

Ferrara said the newly ordered tests should be completed two to three weeks after the state lab receives the additional evidence.


By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
October 4, 2000
RICHMOND, VIRGINIA--Governor James S. Gilmore III on Monday granted a full pardon to a man who had confessed to a 1982 rape and murder, after DNA tests determined he could not have committed the crime. The governor also ordered state police to reopen the investigation into the case.

Gilmore announced that DNA tests prove semen taken from the body of 19-year-old Rebecca L. Williams, did not belong to Earl Washington Jr., 40. DNA taken from semen found at the crime scene did match that of a convicted rapist, whom authorities would not identify.

Washington, who reportedly has an IQ of 69, was arrested in 1983 for beating a 73-year-old woman and burglarizing her home. Police said that while they questioned Washington about the burglary, he confessed to the rape and murder of Williams that occurred almost a year earlier. Even though Washington later recanted the confession, he was convicted of Williams' rape and murder, and was sentenced to the death penalty.

Washington's defenders brought the man's guilt into question, accusing police of asking him leading questions and pressuring him to confess. They pointed out that in Washington's confession, he did not accurately identify the victim's race, that he claimed he stabbed the woman twice, and said he was alone when he killed her.

Williams was actually stabbed 38 times -- in front of her two children.

In 1994, then-Governor L. Douglas Wilder commuted Washington's sentence to life in prison because of doubt as to whether Washington actually did the killing.

Monday's pardon does not mean freedom for Washington. He will continue to serve the 30-year sentence for his assault and burglary convictions.

According to the Innocence Project, a group which pushed for clearing Washington, at least 70 people in the United States have been cleared by DNA testing since it became available in the late 1980s.



November 14, 2000
RICHMOND, VIRGINIA--A legislative group is reviewing Virginia's death penalty law, in light of the recent pardon of Earl Washington Jr., a man diagnosed with mental retardation who had confessed to raping and killing a woman and had come within a few days of being executed. New testing of DNA evidence found that he could not have committed the crime.
More details from today's Washington Post:


By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
February 9, 2001
VIRGINIA BEACH, VIRGINIA--Earl Washington Jr., 40, the man whose life was saved by a governor's pardon based on DNA tests, is expected to walk out of jail on Monday and into a Virginia Beach group home.

Washington, who is considered to have mental retardation, had been sentenced to die in the electric chair after he confessed to raping and killing Rebecca Lynn Williams in 1982. He came within a few days of execution in 1985.

Washington's sentence was changed to life in prison in 1994 after questions came up about his confession. For one thing, Williams had said he acted alone, which contradicted two witnesses -- the victim's children -- who testified that there were two assailants.

Last summer, Governor James Gilmore ordered the case reopened and for sophisticated DNA analyses to be performed. Those DNA tests found no evidence that Earl Washington had been at the scene of the crime. Gilmore pardoned Washington in October.

Washington will remain on parole for the next six months for an unrelated assault conviction, but he has earned enough credits from good behavior to become eligible for the mandatory release on Monday.


By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
February 14, 2001
VIRGINIA BEACH, VIRGINIA--Earl Washington Jr. stared in awe at the cracker display at the Food Lion in his new neighborhood.

"What is the difference between all of these Ritz?" he asked.

"'Reduced Sodium', 'Low Fat', 'Whole Wheat', 'Original'".

It was one of the many choices Washington, 40, has had to make since he walked out of Greensville Correctional Center on Monday. He is the first former death row inmate in Virginia to leave the prison alive.

In 1983, Washington, who reportedly has mental retardation, was arrested for breaking into a woman's house and attacking her. Police say that during questioning, Washington confessed to murdering another woman a year earlier.

Washington was convicted of the murder and sentenced to be executed. He came within a few days of being executed when questions regarding the confession came up eight years ago.

Last fall, new DNA testing determined that Washington could not have committed the murder. Governor James S. Gilmore III pardoned him, but Washington's release was delayed until Monday because of the assault conviction.

Now Washington is adjusting to a life of freedom and a little bit of notoriety.

While at the Food Lion, one Virginia Beach resident recognized Washington.

"Can I give you a hug? I have been reading about you in the newspaper . . . and praying for you for years," the woman said. "I'm just so happy to see you in person. The system is so screwed up."

"It made me feel weird, people walking up to me and hugging me," Washington said later.

Related story:
The Washington Post wrote the following story on the former convict's first days of freedom in nearly 18 years:


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