24 February 2001 (published at http://www.justicedenied.org)
For the first time, someone has moved from Virginia’s death row to exoneration, pardon, and freedom. The case of Earl Washington Jr. has generated a great deal of press and some limited legislative efforts to find other innocents in Virginia prisons and to prevent future false convictions. But action appears unlikely on three fronts: halting executions, seriously reforming the judicial system, and prosecuting the perpetrator of the crime for which Washington was falsely convicted.
On February 12, Washington walked out of a Virginia prison and headed to Virginia Beach, where his lawyers had found a home for the mentally retarded man. Plans to travel straight to the U.S. Capitol to testify about his experience were canceled because the state of Virginia forbade it. While he is out of prison, Washington is still on parole and must obtain permission to leave the Virginia Beach area.
The parole is for an assault conviction, a crime Washington has admitted he committed. It was that crime which led to his being questioned by police in Fauquier County almost 20 years ago. Those police claimed he confessed to several sex-related crimes in the area. However, witnesses in all but one of those cases said he was not the man. In one case, the only witness was dead, having been raped and murdered. A trial ensued which defense lawyers and activists for criminal justice have pointed to as an extreme example of a justice system gone bad. Washington’s trial lawyer did not mention during the trial that his client’s blood type did not match the evidence at the crime scene. Nor did he question the police officers’ techniques in eliciting Washington’s “confession.” Washington ended up on death row and came within nine days of being killed. He was not pardoned until repeated rounds of DNA testing cleared him and pointed to another man.
One of the lawyers who have donated their time to free Washington, Eric Freedman, said: “This case illustrates everything that is wrong with the death penalty system. The pressures of interrogation led a mentally retarded black man to confess falsely to the rape and murder of a white woman. Then, after the incompetence of his trial lawyer resulted in his conviction and death sentence, the legal system refused to address the injustice and left him to the tender mercies of politically-driven officials….
“The state has taken every possible step to defend this indefensible conviction to the last gasp, and there are obviously officials who are still frustrated that it was not Mr. Washington