In June 1982, Rebecca Lynn Williams, a nineteen year old mother of three was raped and murdered in her Culpeper, Virginia apartment. Almost a year later, Earl Washington, a twenty-two year old black man with a general I.Q. in the range of 69, was arrested in neighboring Fauquier County for an alleged burglary and malicious wounding. From that moment on, Washington remained in police custody. After two days of questioning, police claimed he had "confessed" to a total of five different crimes, including the murder of Rebecca Lynn Williams.
Of the five "confessions," the first four were dismissed by the Commonwealth because of the inconsistencies of the testimony and the inability of the victims to identify Washington. In the fifth confession, however, Washington said that he raped and killed Rebecca Lynn Williams. Questioning revealed that Washington did not know the race of his victim, the address of the apartment where she was killed, or that he had raped her. Washington also testified that Ms. Williams had been short when in fact she was 5'8", that he had stabbed her two or three times when the victim showed thirty-eight stab wounds, and that there was no one else in the apartment when it was known that Ms. Williams' two young children were with her in the apartment on the day of the crime. Only on the fourth attempt at a rehearsed confession did authorities accept Washington's statement and have it recorded in writing with Washington's signature. He only picked out the scene of the crime after being taken there three times in one afternoon by the police, who in the end had to help him pick out Williams' apartment. The confession proved to be the prosecution's only evidence linking Washington to the crime.
Psychological analyses of Washington reported that, to compensate for his disability, Washington would politely defer to any authority figure with whom he came into contact. Thus, when police officers asked Washington leading questions in order to obtain a confession, he complied and offered affirmative responses in order to gain their approval. At trial, only the State's psychologist testified, claiming that Washington was competent when his statement was given.
The prosecution's case hinged on Washington's statements as well as his identification of a shirt given to the police by the victim's family six weeks after the crime. A forensic analyst conducted serology testing on evidence from the crime scene and detected a rare plasma protein. Once Washington, who does not possess the rare protein, became a suspect, an amended forensic report was prepared (without additional testing being conducted) that said testing for the rare protein was "inconclusive."
At the penalty phase of the trial, the defense did not offer any counter argument to the jury concerning a sentence of death. The jurors returned with their verdict of death on January 20, 1984. In May 1984, Washington pled guilty to an unrelated case of burglary and malicious wounding and was sentenced to two consecutive fifteen year sentences.
Washington's direct appeal failed. In August 1985, with a September execution date imminent, another death row inmate, Joseph Giarrantano, alerted Marie Deans (a non-lawyer, who for years had been assisting capital prisoners voluntarily) and a lawyer who was at the Virginia prison working on another case, of Washington's story. That lawyer brought Washington's case to her New York law firm, where it was picked up pro bono. These attorneys filed a state habeas corpus petition and secured a stay of execution for Washington nine days before he was scheduled to die.
In 1993, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that although Washington had been denied his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel at trial because of the defense's failure to introduce exculpatory biological evidence, this failure was harmless in light of the other evidence, namely the "confessions". At this desperate point the parties involved in the case agreed to conduct DNA testing on the biological evidence.
In October 1993, the test results revealed that Washington was excluded as a contributor of the seminal stain. Even with this evidence, Washington was time barred by Virginia law, which allowed a defendant twenty-one days to introduce new evidence. Instead, on January 14, 1994, then Governor Wilder commuted Washington's sentence to life imprisonment. Washington remained in prison for six more years before his counsel persuaded the newly elected Governor Gilmore to seek additional DNA testing. On October 2, 2000, Governor Gilmore announced the results of the STR based DNA test and granted Earl Washington an absolute pardon for the capital murder conviction, even though he refused to consider the unrelated burglary and malicious wounding charges. The Virginia Department of Corrections determined that regardless of Governor Gilmore's refusal to pardon the lesser charges, Washington would have been eligible for parole on January 25, 1989, for the burglary and malicious wounding convictions, thereby granting Earl Washington his release from prison to parole supervision on February 12, 2001.
In 2007, the State of Virginia agreed to settle a lawsuit brought on behalf of Washington for $1.9 million.
To learn more, please see: Frontline - The Case for Innocence.