MECKLENBURG, VA. -- Earl Washington Jr. squirms with the shackles on his wrists linked to a chain threaded through the belt loops on his jeans, turning his body into a pulley. He flashes a bashful smile as he struggles to remember how he came to be on Virginia's death row.

He has been at Mecklenburg Correctional Center for six years, ever since he was sentenced to die for the 1982 rape and murder of a woman in Culpeper County.

Washington, 30, has been labeled retarded by psychiatrists. A state hospital test indicated he has the mentality age of a 10-year-old and an IQ of 69.

During an interview in a prison room, Washington slides down in his chair like a child. And like a child, his answer to almost every question is, "I don't know."

That is the demeanor, Washington's attorneys argue, that led to the statement that led to the conviction that may lead to his death.

In an appeal, his attorneys maintain that Washington's mental retardation made him more susceptible to the pressure of police questions. During one interrogation, Washington told police he committed another rape in Fauquier County. He was charged in that case, but the charge was dismissed because Washington did not match the description of the rapist.

His attorneys also argue that physical evidence never presented at Washington's trial proves his innocence. According to the state's scientific report, semen stains at the rape scene do not match Washington's blood type.

"The only evidence against him is a series of statements he made," said Eric M. Freedman, one of Washington's lawyers.

No fingerprints, no murder weapon, no witnesses linked Washington to a crime that happened a county away from Washington's simple world in Fauquier County, where he and four siblings grew up in a shack.

"The jury didn't know anything about the scientific evidence," Freedman said. "They didn't know Earl would have said yes to anybody. Nobody explained that he would have signed a statement to be cooperative. They didn't know he confessed to another rape."

Washington's first attorney, John W. Scott Jr. of King George County, has told lawyers working on Washington's appeal that "he didn't appreciate the importance of that information," said Robert T. Hall, one of Washington's attorneys on the appeal. Scott declined to comment on the grounds that he is now a judge, other than to say he believes Washington is innocent.

So far, four courts have rejected requests for a new hearing in Washington's case. It is currently before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where three judges are expected to decide on the appeal this summer.

In a 1989 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mentally retarded people could be executed so long as judges or juries consider their retardation before imposing a sentence.

Bernard Inskeep, 44, who sat on the jury that sentenced Washington to death, said the jury was aware that Washington was mentally retarded. "That was brought out in the trial," said Inskeep, a Culpeper farmer. "That wouldn't change me. I felt like he did the crime even though they are trying to say he {would have} confessed to anything. I think {police} did it straight. I have to feel that way because you have to have faith in policemen."

Attorneys for the state say Washington has had his day in court, was tried by a jury of his peers and was sentenced to die.

"We take the position there is no new evidence," said Bert L. Rohrer, press secretary for state Attorney General Mary Sue Terry. "It's all been before the court. If there was new evidence, as a matter of law, it would not materially affect the case."

Prosecutors said during the trial that the presence of so much of the victim's blood at the murder scene made tests on the semen stains an unreliable indicator of the rapist's blood type.

Earl Washington is sentenced to die because of what happened at mid-morning on June 4, 1982, in an apartment complex in the rural town of Culpeper.

Rebecca Lynn Williams, 19, was raped and stabbed 38 times in her apartment while her two children -- ages 6 months and 2 years -- were in the next room. Blood was smeared from the back bedroom down the hall to the front door where Williams fell and cried for help.

Before she was taken to the hospital, she told a neighbor, an off-duty police officer, that her attacker was a black man who acted alone.

Almost a year passed without any strong suspects. Police say the slaying left the town paralyzed. On May 21, 1983, Washington was arrested in Fauquier County on charges of breaking and entering and assaulting his brother. He had been running through the woods all night. When police took him to jail, they began to question him about unsolved crimes in Fauquier, according to their testimony.

During the interrogation, Washington told police he raped another woman on April 13, 1983, according to handwritten notes by Fauquier investigator Terry Schrum. After telling police he committed that rape, Schrum wrote, "Earl still seemed nervous, as though there was still something else he kept from us.

"Because I felt that he was still hiding something, being nervous, and due to the nature of his crimes that he was already charged with, we decided to ask him about the murder which occurred in Culpeper in 1982.

"At this time, I asked Earl, 'Earl, did you kill that girl in Culpeper?' Earl sat there silent for about five seconds and then shook his head and started crying."

The interview and the handwritten notes that are the only record of it led Washington's attorneys to question the statement.

"They knew he was a person of low intelligence," Freedman said. "That he could not read the Miranda warnings. They knew he couldn't understand some of those questions. That's why they kept rephrasing them."

During an interview with Reese Wilmore, who was then a Culpeper investigator, Washington was asked whether the victim was white or black. Wilmore testified that after Washington answered that she was black (Williams was white): "I continued to ask him other questions. I didn't even stop. I asked him several more questions then went back and asked him again if the woman was white or black. At that point he said, 'white. It was a white woman.' "

Culpeper Commonwealth's Attorney John C. Bennett, who prosecuted the case, said Washington's statement was not forced.

"The statement and the circumstances surrounding the statement and his mental capacity to give the statement were examined by a court of law," Bennett said. "The court, after going through all these questions, determined the statement was not coerced. He was not tricked or suggested into doing anything."

Wilmore said he remembers that Washington was slow at answering his questions.

"Washington is not a real sharp individual," Wilmore said. "You've got to explain things to him. I tried to explain everything on a level anybody would understand. He did seem to fully understand what was going on. He seemed to know things about the case no one else would know. I remember thinking at the time unless he was there, no one could know these things."

Washington's attorneys said that by the time Wilmore talked with Washington, Washington already had gone through the police version of the story several times with investigators in Fauquier and knew what police wanted him to say.

He doesn't have an alibi; he can't remember where he was on the day of the murder, which happened a year before he was arrested. In his statement, Washington said he hitchhiked from his home in Fauquier to Culpeper.

Virginia is one of the states where it is most difficult for cases such as Washington's to get a new hearing and to overturn a death sentence, several capital punishment experts said. Virginia's rules of procedure in criminal cases, they said, strictly limit the introduction of new evidence.

"It's fairly general for the courts in Virginia to refuse to hear cases that might be heard elsewhere," said Richard Burr, director of the Capital Punishment Project of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York. "Virginia is the hardest state in the country to get either the state courts or the federal courts to listen."

Eight people have been executed in Virginia since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty. Forty-seven people are now on Virginia's death row.

One of them, Earl Washington, spends his days watching television while he waits for word on his appeal. His favorite shows are "Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune," although he said he rarely guesses the correct answers.

Other inmates help him write letters to his family, who he said have not visited him since 1986.

Washington grew up in rural Fauquier. His father worked as a farmhand. His mother was a domestic. He is the second oldest of five children, none of whom went past 10th grade in school.

During the death-row interview, Washington's long fingers rubbed his eyes as he tried to read the statement that police had reduced to writing.

"Earl J. Washington is a . . . I don't know that word," he said. The word was "Negro."

He tried to concentrate but stumbled again and again as he slowly sounded out the letters, stumped by the words "regard" and "realize."

He said he hasn't thought much about being executed. Other inmates tell him he has a good case, but he said he doesn't want to get his hopes up.

"I'm scared in some ways," he said. "In some ways I'm not. Someday I'm going to die. But dying for something I didn't do scares me the most."