A convicted double murderer who came within two days of sitting in Virginia’s electric chair will soon be a free man.
Joseph M. Giarratano, who won support from around the world fighting his 1979 conviction in the Norfolk slayings, was granted parole Monday.
“I’m confident there’s no other prisoner like him in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” said lawyer Stephen A. Northup, who represented Giarratano before the parole board.
Giarratano was a 21-year-old scallop boat worker when he confessed to killing his roommates, 44-year-0ld Barbara Kline and her 15-year-old daughter, Michelle. But his confessions were inconsistent with each other and with the physical evidence, which did not tie him to the crime. He later said that after waking up from a drug-induced stupor and finding the bodies, he simply assumed he was the killer.
His attempts to win freedom attracted the support of actor Jack Lemmon, singer Joan Baez and conservative newspaper columnist James J. Kilpatrick, among others. In 1991, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder granted Giarratano a commutation, changing his sentence from death to life and making him eligible for parole after serving 25 years.
However, Virginia Attorney General Mary Sue Terry declined to grant Giarratano a new trial, saying she was still convinced of his guilt.
In prison, the uneducated Giarratano taught himself the law and advocated for fellow prisoners. He helped secure representation for Earl Washington Jr., another death row inmate, who was eventually exonerated by DNA evidence.
Giarratano sought to have similar evidence tested in his case, but it had been destroyed by the time he was allowed to file such a request.
Adrianne L. Bennett, chairwoman of the Virginia State Parole Board, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the parole decision should not be read as confirming Giarratano’s innocence. While Northup is confident that his client did not commit the murders, he said he believes the Monday decision has more to do with a parole board that is more open than in the past to freeing prisoners who have behaved admirably behind bars.
Now, Northup said, Giarratano plans to move to Charlottesville and work as a paralegal with lawyer Steven D. Rosenfield. He also hopes to work with the University of Virginia Law School’s Innocence Project.