Earl Washington Jr., a mildly mentally retarded man who was nearly executed for a 1982 rape and murder he did not commit, was not coerced into making a false confession by the police officers who interrogated him, a federal judge ruled yesterday.
U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon found, however, that there is enough evidence for a jury to consider whether a Virginia State Police special agent fabricated evidence that helped prosecutors win a conviction.
In a 24-page opinion, Moon dismissed civil claims Washington filed against the Town of Culpeper and six law enforcement officials involved in the investigation into the slaying of Rebecca Lynn Williams, 19, a mother who was stabbed in her Culpeper apartment. Washington spent 171/2 years in prison for the killing before he was cleared through DNA tests and pardoned in 2000.
Washington filed the suit in 2002 in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville -- a suit described by his attorneys as an effort to remove any doubts about his innocence and prompt changes in Virginia's justice system. Washington was sentenced to death in 1984, based largely on a confession in which he got many details wrong, including the race of the victim and the number of times she was stabbed.
Jack L. Gould, a Fairfax attorney who represents a former Fauquier County sheriff and two deputies named as defendants in the suit, yesterday praised Moon's ruling. "I was convinced early on that my clients had followed the law and this is the right result," Gould said.
Although Moon dismissed the majority of the claims made by Washington, the ruling still could mean that a jury will decide whether then-Virginia State Police agent Curtis Reese Wilmore misled prosecutors and jurors regarding the case.
Moon noted in the ruling that Wilmore, now deceased, testified at Washington's trial that Washington told him he left his shirt in Williams's apartment. Years later, Wilmore told a Virginia assistant attorney general that he was uneasy about his testimony and that he thought the police had told Washington that a shirt was found at the crime scene.
"It is significant whether the information regarding the shirt was first volunteered by Washington or whether the presence of the shirt at the murder scene was suggested by police. If Washington volunteered the information, it would appear that he had non-public information about the murder scene," Moon wrote.
William G. Broaddus, the attorney for Wilmore's estate, said that he will appeal Moon's ruling and that Wilmore testified honestly, actually helping to lead to the exoneration of Washington. "Reese Wilmore is how we know these inconsistencies [between Washington's statement and the facts] occurred," Broaddus said. "He volunteered them. He didn't try to hide them."
One of Washington's attorneys, Peter Neufeld, said the ruling is a victory because it will allow a trial to air details of the investigation.
"It's a great opportunity for the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia, who will be able to see all the pus and bile that's part of the system of justice that put an innocent man within nine days of execution," Neufeld said.