By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Virginia officials have agreed to pay $1.9 million to a man who spent 17 years in prison -- including more than nine on death row -- for a rape and murder he did not commit, officials said yesterday.
If the settlement is approved by the court, it will bring an end to years of legal battles that arose from one of the nation's most troubling instances of a wrongful conviction. Earl Washington Jr., a farmworker who is mildly mentally retarded, once came within days of execution. He was exonerated in 2000 by DNA tests.
Washington, 46, has since married and lives in Virginia Beach. He earns a modest salary working as a maintenance man.
"This will give Earl protection, security and comfort, and it's just about time for that," Robert T. Hall, one of Washington's attorneys, said yesterday. Washington declined to comment.
Washington's conviction in the 1982 rape and murder of 19-year-old Rebecca Williams, a young mother from Culpeper, was largely the result of a false confession in which he got several key details wrong. Last year, a federal jury in Charlottesville ruled that a now-deceased Virginia State Police investigator fabricated parts of that confession. The jury awarded Washington $2.5 million.
The proposed $1.9 million settlement calls for the court to dismiss the verdict against the estate of investigator Curtis Reese Wilmore, who died in 1994, according to court papers. It also would mean that all appeals in the case, including one by Wilmore's estate, would be dropped. The state funded the defense against Washington's lawsuit because Wilmore was a state employee when he interrogated Washington.
"All litigation arising out of the wrongful conviction and near execution of Earl Washington would come to an end," Hall said.
Last year, Kenneth M. Tinsley, 61, was charged with Williams's rape and murder. Tinsley, who is serving a life sentence for an unrelated rape, is awaiting trial.
Washington's case has had a significant impact on Virginia's criminal justice system. His story inspired a 2001 law allowing inmates who claim innocence to seek DNA testing at any time, loosening what was then the toughest rule in the nation on new evidence. It also led to a review of some cases analyzed in Virginia's DNA laboratory.
In 1994, then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D) commuted Washington's sentence to life in prison after forensic tests cast doubt on his guilt. Six years later, then-Gov. James S. Gilmore III pardoned him after more advanced testing failed to connect Washington to the crime and revealed the presence of a convicted rapist's DNA at the scene.
According to court papers, the office of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), Washington's legal team, Wilmore's attorneys and court mediators reached the agreement March 6. Kevin Hall, Kaine's spokesman, confirmed that all sides reached an agreement but said he could not comment further because it has not been finalized by the court.
William G. Broaddus, an attorney for Wilmore's estate, said the Wilmore family is pleased that the jury's finding would be dismissed.
Robert Hall said the payment would be managed by trustees who would invest the money and arrange for regular payments to Washington that would supplement his income. Some of the funds also would cover attorney's fees, Hall said.