Correcting and Preventing Wrongful Convictions in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

Earl Washington

Date / Location:June 4, 1982, Culpeper, Virginia Conviction:Rape, Murder
Year of Conviction:Death sentence Release Date:1982
Sentence:October 2, 2000 Sentence Served:18 years
Real perpetrator found?:Not yet Contributing cause to wrongful conviction:
Compensation?:Yes, $2.25 million

Earl Washington spent more than 18 years in prison – half of it on death row – for a crime he did not commit, once coming within nine days of execution.  Even after DNA tests excluded him as the attacker, Washington was sentenced to life in prison based on the theory that he was an accomplice.  A false confession, combined with police tunnel vision, led to his wrongful conviction and death sentence.

On June 4, 1982, Rebecca Williams was raped and stabbed to death in her apartment in front of her two young children.  Before she died, Williams told her husband and a police officer that she had been attacked by a black man acting alone.  Washington was not arrested for the murder until almost a year later.  Washington was a 22-year-old mentally retarded man with no real criminal record.  He had been arrested for an unrelated charge, and while in police custody, he confessed to five other crimes, including the Williams murder.  Despite his confessions, Washington was ruled out as a suspect in the other four offenses because in each case, either the victim cleared Washington or the evidence was fundamentally inconsistent with his confession.  In his confession to the Williams murder, Washington did not know the race of his victim, the address of the apartment where she was killed, or the fact that she had been raped.

Nonetheless, police from the county where the Williams crime wanted to question Washington.  During this interrogation, Washington told Virginia State Police Special Agent Curtis Reese Wilmore that he could show them where the crime occurred.  Police spent the day driving around with Washington, who pointed them to the wrong apartment building.  He told police that he showed them that particular building because it was the only one he had been to in the area.  Police finally drove to Williams’ building, pointed to her apartment and asked Washington if that was it.  He confirmed that it was and said he didn’t know why he didn’t identify it earlier.

Back at the station, Wilmore coached Washington to make a confession that did not conflict with the actual facts of the crime. It was not until Washington’s fourth attempt to confess that Wilmore took his statement.

That fourth confession was the only evidence the state introduced when Washington was charged with the murder.  At trial, the defense failed to point out the inconsistencies of the prosecution’s case, including the results of the Commonwealth’s serological analysis of the seminal fluid found on the blanket at the scene of the crime, which did not match Washington’s profile.  The Commonwealth’s psychologist testified that Washington was competent when his statement was given, and the defense did not present a competing expert.  The jury was not told that Washington was mentally retarded, with an IQ of only 69.  Washington was convicted and sentenced to death.

Washington went through the appeals process without success.  In August of 1985, Washington was moved to death row.  Nine days before his scheduled execution, Washington’s new attorneys filed a state habeas corpus petition that secured a stay on his execution.  In preparing the petition, Washington’s attorneys had found new evidence that showed Washington’s innocence.  None of the fingerprints or palm prints found at the crime scene matched Washington, and blood tests showed that Washington could not have been the contributor of the semen recovered from the rape kit.  None of this evidence, all of which had existed at the time of Washington’s trial, had been presented to the jury.

Washington’s legal team – which included the Innocence Project – finally was able to secure additional DNA tests on the evidence.  These tests again showed that the semen had not come from Washington, but Virginia’s 21-Day Rule barred Washington from presenting the new evidence to prove his innocence.  Instead, Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder commuted Washington’s sentence to life in prison.  Washington remained in prison for six more years before his counsel persuaded then-Governor James Gilmore to seek additional, more sophisticated DNA testing.  On October 2, 2000, Governor Gilmore announced the results of the new tests and granted Washington an absolute pardon.

As a result of testing errors that occurred in the Washington case, then-Governor Mark Warner order a comprehensive audit of the state crime lab’s conduct and procedures in the Washington case and in other death row cases. Washington’s case is also a glaring example of the need to videotape interrogations in Virginia.

After his release from prison, Washington found work as a maintenance worker in Virginia. In 2006, Earl Washington filed a civil suit against the state police and the estate of Special Agent Wilmore, who died in 1994. He was awarded $2.25 million for the police misconduct that led to his wrongful conviction.