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Earl Washington, Jr.

Other Virgina False Confession Cases
On June 4, 1982, the neighbors of 19-year-old Rebecca Williams found her naked and bleeding badly from multiple stab wounds at her apartment in Culpeper, Virginia. Two of her three young children were also in the unit.Williams was taken to the hospital where she died at 2 p.m. that day. Before her death, she told police and her husband that the person who assaulted her was a lone Black man. An autopsy later reported that Williams had been sexually assaulted.

Nearly a year later, on May 21, 1983, 22-year-old Earl Washington Jr. was arrested for an alleged burglary and malicious wounding in neighboring Fauquier County, Virginia. Washington worked as a farmhand and had been in special-education classes until he dropped out in the ninth grade. It was later reported he had an I.Q. of 69.

While in police custody, Washington confessed to the burglary and malicious wounding, along with four other violent crimes. Those other confessions would later be proven false; either Washington’s statement was inconsistent with the facts of the crimes, or a victim would state that Washington was not involved.

An officer with the Warrenton Police Department wrote in his report that he felt Washington was still hiding something, and he decided to ask him about the Williams murder. “Earl didn’t look at us, but was still very nervous,” the officer wrote. “Asked Earl if he knew anything about it. Earl sat there and didn’t reply just as he did in the other cases prior to admitting them. At this time I asked Earl—“ EARL DID YOU KILL THAT GIRL IN CULPEPER?” Earl sat there silent for about five seconds and then shook his head yes and started crying.”

The Warrenton officers called the police in Culpeper, who began their interrogation of Washington the next day. Washington signed a confession and was charged with capital murder and rape.

Washington’s attorney filed multiple pre-trial motions, requesting a change of venue and a psychiatric examination to determine whether Washington was fit to stand trial, and moving to suppress Washington’s confession on the basis that he did not intelligently waive his Miranda rights. The psychiatrist who examined Washington determined he was competent to stand trial. The motions to suppress his confession and move the trial were denied.

The trial began on January 18, 1984, in Culpeper County Circuit Court. The jury consisted of ten white jurors and two black jurors.

The state’s case centered around Washington’s confession as well as a work shirt presumed to be from the murderer. The shirt had been found by Williams’s mother-in-law. It was washed and worn by Williams’s father-in-law and turned over to the police six weeks after the murder, when Williams’s husband said the shirt did not belong to him. Washington said in his statement that he left behind a shirt. The police could not explain how they missed the shirt in their initial search of the apartment.

The shirt’s pocket had some hairs in it. Prior to Washington’s arrest, they had been compared against another possible suspect, but there was no comparison against Washington’s hair.

The prosecution focused on the confession and Washington’s ability to point out the apartment where the crime took place. The defense focused on the unreliability of the confession and methods used to obtain the confession as well as Washington’s intellectual disability.

Because there was no recording of Washington’s interrogation, the police officers who interviewed Washington testified about the questions they asked and the answers they received. Often, they asked Washington leading questions, and he responded in single-word answers. At times, the police asked Washington the same question several times until he answered in a manner consistent with the known facts.

For example, Washington was asked about Williams’s race. Washington first answered that she was Black. He was asked again. Then he answered that she was white.

Washington described Williams as short. She was 5’ 8” tall. He said he stabbed her “once or twice.” She was stabbed 38 times. He said Williams was alone in the apartment. Two of her daughters were there.

The officers had driven Washington around the area of the murder. When Washington was unable to identify Williams’s apartment, officers pointed out the correct apartment. Later, Washington answered affirmatively about the apartment being the location of the crime.

The only physical evidence to tie Washington to the crime scene was the work shirt. Curtis Wilmore, with the Virginia State Police, had noted in his initial report that Washington “gave pertinent information about the crime that no one knew with the exception of himself.” The report did not specify the information.

Wilmore testified that he asked Washington if he left anything in the apartment, and Washington responded, “My shirt.” Another officer retrieved the shirt, which was in a bag and held it in front of Washington. He was asked if the shirt was his, and Washington said it was and that he knew it was because “A patch had been removed from the top of the pocket.”

Washington testified in his own defense. He answered all questions regarding his confession with the same answer: “No, sir.” When asked if he knew what the word “rape” meant, he also answered “No, sir.” Washington’s sister testified that she often did her brother’s laundry and that he didn’t own a shirt like the one said to be found at Williams’s apartment.

On January 20, 1984, the jury found Earl Washington Jr. guilty of capital murder and rape. He was later sentenced to death.

Washington appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, which affirmed the conviction and sentence on November 20, 1984. He petitioned the United States Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, which was denied on May 13, 1985. After these appeals, Washington no longer had a right to legal counsel if he could not afford an attorney.

Washington was housed in the death house at Greenville Correctional Center as he awaited execution, which was scheduled for September 5, 1985.

Joseph Giarratano, a fellow death row inmate, decided to help obtain counsel for Washington. He began contacting attorneys on Washington’s behalf. Giarratano brought Washington’s case to the attention of an attorney in New York who was working on his own case. He told the attorney, “Earl Washington has an IQ of 69, an execution date three weeks away and no lawyer. What the hell are you going to do about it?” An attorney at the firm, Eric Freedman, took the case and enlisted the help of a local attorney, Robert T. Hall.

Washington’s new defense team filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus, a motion for a stay of execution, and other motions for relief. The stay of execution was granted nine days before Washington’s scheduled execution.

Freedman and Hall discovered substantial exculpatory evidence that was not known to jurors at trial. The police had found semen stains on Williams’s bed. Although DNA testing wasn’t available at the time of the trial, the stain’s blood type was inconsistent with Washington’s.

Separately, Washington had been excluded as a contributor to fingerprints found inside Williams’s apartment. Washington’s attorney had this information, but he did not present it at trial. Based on these findings, Freedman and Hall claimed that Washington’s trial attorney had been ineffective. The habeas petition was denied without a hearing. Freedman and Hall appealed, and the Virginia Supreme Court denied review on February 26, 1988.

On July 28, 1988, Freedman and Hall filed a federal habeas petition in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. A judge denied the petition without a hearing on October 25, 1989.

Washington’s attorneys appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. On December 19, 1991, the appellate court said the District Court had erred in denying the habeas petition without holding an evidentiary hearing. A hearing was held, and a federal judge denied the habeas petition. The Fourth Circuit then affirmed the ruling.

Freedman and Hall requested that Virginia’s Attorney General conduct additional DNA testing on the evidence. The test reported that sperm found on Williams’s body contained a genetic marker that was absent from Washington’s DNA profile.

Based on this new evidence, Washington petitioned Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder on December 20, 1993, for a full pardon. Wilder rejected the petition but commuted Washington’s death sentence to life in prison just before leaving office on January 14, 1994. Wilder said he based his decision on a theory that there was a second attacker present, despite Williams’s statement that there was only one attacker.

Separately in 1993, Wilmore met with Assistant Attorney General John McLees Jr. and said Washington's case continued to trouble him. In a memo, McLees wrote: “[Wilmore] told me that he felt very uneasy about how the record reflects Washington’s confession was obtained, particularly with respect to the incriminating shirt found at the scene which Washington identified as his. Specifically, Wilmore said that he felt like either he or [Culpeper Police Officer Harlan] Hart must have mentioned the shirt to Washington before Washington said he left the shirt at the scene, and that his testimony in the record did not accurately reflect that the shirt had been first mentioned by the police.”

McLees called Wilmore and asked him whether Wilmore was trying to suggest his testimony was inaccurate or had omitted material facts.

He would write: “Wilmore told me he felt like he must have asked Washington something about the shirt, and that the transcript just did not read right. It did not ‘go down’ exactly as he said in the statement. Wilmore said that he or Hart must have mentioned it—‘did you leave your shirt?’ He could not say with 100% certainty that he remembered saying that to Washington, but he thinks that’s the way it went down.”

“When I asked Wilmore specifically whether he felt at the time of the trial that his testimony was inaccurate, he said absolutely not. He did, however, agree that he had intended his testimony to be a mere general summary of the conversation with Washington, rather than a verbatim account of it. He said that, had he been asked specifically by defense counsel at the time of trial whether he had mentioned the shirt first or whether Washington had, he would have said that he mentioned the shirt first.”

In 1999, a reporter for the PBS series Frontline requested copies of Washington’s DNA tests. The documents said that Washington was not a contributor to genetic material found on a blanket near Williams’s body. Frontline’s show, “The Case for Innocence,” featuring Washington’s case, ran on January 11, 2000. The broadcast pressured Governor James Gilmore III to order further testing on the DNA samples on June 1, 2000.

While waiting for the test results, Washington’s attorneys filed a new pardon application on September 7, 2000. The test results excluded Washington as a contributor to the semen sample and identified Kenneth Tinsley as the source of the material. At the time, Tinsley was already in prison for two other rape convictions. He would plead guilty to Williams’s rape and murder in 2007.

Gilmore granted a full pardon to Earl Washington Jr. on October 2, 2000. Washington was not immediately released from prison because of his separate convictions for malicious wounding and burglary. (He had pled guilty to those unrelated crimes after his murder trial.) He was released from prison on February 12, 2001.

Washington filed a civil-rights lawsuit against the officials involved in his wrongful conviction in 2006. He settled the lawsuit in 2007, receiving $1.9 million.

Separately, Governor Timothy Kaine revised the terms of Washington’s pardon in 2007. “It is now evident that Mr. Washington was and is innocent of the crimes against Mrs. Williams,” Kaine wrote in the pardon. “I have decided it is just and appropriate to grant this revised absolute pardon that reflects Mr. Washington’s innocence.”

– Alexandra Rae Prothro

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 7/20/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Rape
Reported Crime Date:1982
Age at the date of reported crime:22
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes