Former Death-Row Inmate Officially Declared Innocent

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 7, 2007

Earl Washington Jr., a mildly mentally retarded man who was nearly executed in Virginia for a rape and murder he did not commit, walked out of prison six years ago after he was exonerated by DNA evidence. This week, Virginia officially declared him innocent.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) issued an absolute pardon, which acknowledges that Washington was wrongly convicted of capital murder and rape. In the three-page pardon, Kaine said DNA evidence and the recent conviction of another man in the 1982 slaying provide conclusive proof that Washington had no connection to the crime.

"It is now evident that Mr. Washington was and is innocent," Kaine wrote.

For several years after the DNA cleared him and pointed to the other man, the special prosecutor in the case still insisted that Washington was a suspect.

Washington's story, which helped spark changes in Virginia's criminal justice system, has long been considered one of the nation's most troubling instances of a wrongful conviction. He came within days of execution.

His legal team yesterday hailed the pardon as a final step in a two-decade battle to clear Washington's name and erase any lingering doubts.

"Anybody who continues to think Earl was possibly involved in this thing, this pardon says get over it," said Robert T. Hall, one of Washington's attorneys. "It's now recognized . . . that Earl Washington Jr. was actually innocent of that crime. Symbolically, it's a great day for Earl."

Washington, who has since married and works as a maintenance man in Virginia Beach, answered with one word when his lawyers told him about the pardon. "He said, 'Finally,' " Hall said.

Washington's case 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. The U.S. Supreme Court cited his case in a footnote of a 2002 decision to abolish the execution of mentally retarded offenders.

In April, Kenneth M. Tinsley, who was serving life in prison for a 1984 rape, pleaded guilty to Williams's rape and murder. He was sentenced to two additional life terms.

Washington, a former farm worker who has an IQ of 69, was convicted and sentenced to death largely based on a confession his attorneys say was coerced. A jury found that he raped and stabbed Rebecca Williams, 19, 38 times while she was in her Culpeper apartment with two of her children.

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 issued a pardon after more advanced testing failed to connect Washington to the crime and revealed the presence of Tinsley's DNA at the scene. Gilmore's pardon was on the limited grounds that a reasonable jury would not have convicted him based on the evidence as it was then known. Kaine's pardon actually proclaims his innocence.

This year, Virginia officials agreed to pay Washington $1.9 million to settle a lawsuit he had filed against law enforcement officials. His lawyers said the payment is being managed by trustees who provide regular payments to Washington to supplement his income.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company