Wrongfully Jailed Man Wins Suit
Saturday, May 6, 2006
A federal jury ruled yesterday that a now-deceased Virginia State Police investigator fabricated the confession that sent Earl Washington Jr. to death row for more than nine years for a rape and murder he didn't commit.
The jury in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville, Va., awarded $2.25 million to Washington in his lawsuit against the estate of Curtis Reese Wilmore, who died in 1994. Washington's attorney said it was the largest award in a federal civil rights case in Virginia history.
After a two-week trial and six hours of deliberation, the five-woman, four-man jury found that Wilmore deliberately falsified evidence, which resulted in Washington's conviction and death sentence in the 1982 rape and murder of Rebecca Williams, 19, of Culpeper.
The verdict marked another milestone in the legal odyssey of Washington, whose pardon in 2000 became a symbol in a statewide and national debate over whether death-row inmates can use new technology to challenge their convictions. Washington's case inspired a 2001 law that gives Virginia inmates who claim innocence the right to seek DNA testing at any time, loosening what was then the toughest rule in the nation on new evidence.
"I feel great. I'm really happy," Washington, a mildly retarded maintenance worker who came within nine days of execution, said in a telephone interview yesterday.
His attorney, Peter Neufeld, said the verdict is "obviously the most powerful proof imaginable that false confessions can put innocent people on death row. Frankly, it's a great relief because many of us have been fighting for years for Earl's innocence and vindication."
An attorney for the Wilmore estate, William G. Broaddus, did not return telephone calls late yesterday. Neither did officials in the Virginia attorney general's office. The state funded the defense against Washington's lawsuit because Wilmore was a state employee when he interrogated Washington.
Corrine Geller, a Virginia State Police spokeswoman, declined to comment on yesterday's verdict. Washington was unable to sue the department because it has immunity as a state agency. His lawsuit, filed in 2002, named other defendants, such as a Culpeper police officer who was present during Washington's interrogation, but those defendants were dropped before the case reached trial.
The trial was also notable for a major development in the investigation of who killed Williams. The two sides in the case stipulated, or agreed, in court that Washington was innocent. Even after Washington was pardoned, a special prosecutor had indicated that he remained a suspect.
Neufeld said the stipulation was the first time the state has publicly acknowledged that Washington is innocent. The prosecutor overseeing the investigation into Williams's death, Richard Moore, did not return telephone calls late yesterday.
Williams was stabbed 38 times in her apartment on a June morning in 1982 while her two young children were inside. As she crumpled onto her doorstep, she told a neighbor who rushed to help that she had been stabbed by a black man.
Washington became embroiled in the Williams case when he broke into an elderly neighbor's home to steal from her and hit her on the head with a chair when she surprised him in the kitchen.