DNA clears Washington - The Richmond Times-Dispatch

UPDATE: No Parole for Earl Washington DNA clears Washington

Once condemned to die, he is pardoned but remains imprisoned in unrelated case




Fifteen years after he came within nine days of dying in the electric chair for a brutal 1982 rape and murder he did not commit, Earl Washington Jr. has been cleared by DNA tests and pardoned by Gov. Jim Gilmore. While clearing Washington, the DNA tests implicated a convicted rapist. As a result, Gilmore has ordered the Virginia State Police to reopen the investigation into the June 4, 1982, rape and slaying of Rebecca Lynn Williams in Culpeper. But it is a bittersweet victory for Washington, who will remain incarcerated for the moment, serving time on a 30-year sentence he received for an unrelated 1983 assault charge. He likely would have been paroled years ago had he not been held for capital murder. Gilmore has turned that question over the Virginia Parole Board. In any case, Virginia's capital punishment system, arguably one of the most efficient in the country, can no longer be held up as error-free. Washington is the 88th condemned person to be found wrongfully convicted in the United States since 1973 - and the first from Virginia. In a statement released last night, Gilmore said, "In my judgment, a jury afforded the benefit of the DNA evidence and analysis available to me today would have reached a different conclusion regarding the guilt of Earl Wash ington. "Upon careful deliberation and review of all of the evidence, as well as the circumstances of this matter, I have decided it is just and appropriate to intervene in the judicial process by granting Earl Washington an absolute pardon for the capital murder and rape of Rebecca Williams," he said. Barry A. Weinstein, one of Washington's lawyers, said he spoke with Washington last night. He said Washington told him, "I feel good. I've been telling everybody I didn't do it." Then, said Weinstein, Washington said, "I guess I'm freed." Weinstein told him no and explained the situation. Neither Culpeper Commonwealth's Attorney Gary Close nor Clifford Williams, who was Rebecca Williams' husband at the time of the slaying, could be reached for comment last night. Gerald T. Zerkin, another of Washington's lawyers, said, "Obviously, we're pleased that he's been exonerated, though a more conclusive declaration of his innocence [from Gilmore] would have been nice." Zerkin said, "What is particularly disappointing is that he has not resolved the question of the [assault] case and simply released him after everything Mr. Washington has been through and instead has put him in the position of having to wait until administrative questions about his . . . release date are all resolved." Eric M. Freedman, a New York lawyer who helped save Washington from the electric chair in 1985, was less generous toward Gilmore for his decision not to release Washington. "It's an act of political cowardice and bureaucratic buck passing that compounds the original injustice," said Freedman. "No one doubts that Mr. Washington would have been released six or seven years ago on the noncapital charge, which is the governor's excuse for continuing to hold him," he said. Freedman said, "What we have here is the state of Virginia desperately doing everything possible to avoid facing up to its original, almost fatal, error and releasing an innocent person who should have been freed to rejoin his family a long time ago." Given the history of his case, which includes close calls, some lucky breaks and advances in DNA testing technology, Washington could have been dead long ago. Washington was also convicted of the May 1983 break-in at the home of Helen Weeks in Fauquier County. He stole a gun and money from her and beat the 73-year- old woman with a chair. He received two 15-year sentences, to be served consecutively, for statutory burglary and assault. While being questioned in the Weeks case, Washington confessed to the rape and murder of Rebecca Williams and was convicted and sentenced to die. Williams, 19, was stabbed 38 times in her apartment. The mildly retarded farm worker came close to a Sept. 5, 1985, execution because he did not have an appeal lawyer and was not capable of filing an appeal by himself. His case was brought to the attention of a federal judge by former death row inmate Joseph Giarratano. Giarratano's death sentence was later commuted. An activist, Marie Deans, finally found a lawyer - in New York - and Washington's execution was put off. Deans, then head of the now-defunct Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons, contacted 75 lawyers before she found Freedman, who agreed to take the case and got the execution stayed. A Virginia senior assistant attorney general testified in federal court in 1986 that had Washington not won a stay of execution by Sept. 5, 1985, the sentence would have been carried out. In 1993, Washington was close to having another execution date set when a DNA test strongly suggested Washington did not leave the semen inside the body of the victim, who said she was attacked by one man before she died. But authorities decided the DNA test results left open the possibility the victim had sex with a third man - other than Washington or her husband - in the hours preceding her death and, therefore, Washington could still be guilty. Then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder commuted the sentence to life in prison. Since Washington's sentence was commuted, new DNA technology became available and new evidence to test was discovered, but Washington was made to wait months while Gilmore decided whether to approve the testing, then four months longer as the testing and additional investigation were conducted. Gilmore said that since June 1, when he ordered new DNA tests, the Virginia Division of Forensic Science has proceeded to test all known and available evidence. "Unfortunately, several samples of semen taken from Mrs. Williams' body at the time of the investigation had deteriorated due to age and could not be analyzed." One sample could be tested, though it could not be confirmed the semen belonged to the rapist. According to the results of the DNA tests performed on that sole sample, Washington is excluded from semen taken from Mrs. Williams' body. "In an effort to ensure all other evidence - forensic or otherwise - was thoroughly examined, I directed the state police to conduct a thorough review of the case and to seek any other evidence that might be tested by the Division of Forensic Science," said Gilmore. A blue blanket taken from the scene of the crime was tested, and DNA tests revealed the semen of another person. The DNA from semen on the blue blanket matched the DNA of a convicted rapist. However, said Gilmore, the DNA on the blue blanket did not match the DNA of the sole sample of semen taken from Mrs. Williams' body. The Division of Forensic Science could not confirm the DNA found on the blue blanket was Mrs. Williams' rapist's. "I am directing the state police to reopen their investigation," said Gilmore.

Contact Frank Green at (804) 649-6340 or fgreen@timesdispatch.com

Read Frontline's riveting expose on Earl Washinton's case and similar cases of proven innocence.


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