Colman McCarthy is a former editorial writer and columnist for The Post and directs the Center For Teaching Peace, a Washington nonprofit.
On Feb. 21, 1991, I traveled to the Spring Street state prison in Richmond to say goodbye to Joseph Giarratano, scheduled the next day to be executed in the electric chair. We met in a room where bodies are cooled after being hauled a hop away from the death chamber.
After a four-hour bench trial in 1979, served by a poorly paid court-appointed lawyer with little experience in capital cases, Giarratano was sentenced to death for the murders of Toni Kline and her teenage daughter, Michelle. In Norfolk, the three shared a walk-up apartment in a rooming house for transients. Planning to move out the next day, Feb. 4, 1979, Giarratano, 21, a drug addict and fisherman, came in late and, stoned, fell asleep on the living room sofa. In the morning, he discovered the two bodies — the mother knifed and the daughter strangled. Frightened and imagining his guilt, he fled and was soon on a bus that took him south to Jacksonville, where he turned himself in to a cop eating breakfast.
Much of this was reported Jan. 12, 1990, by Lynn Sherr on ABC News’s “20/20,” in a segment that stitched together a fabric of facts that led to the conclusion that Giarratano was not the murderer. He gave five coerced confessions — each different and spoken in a drug-induced state of mind. Exonerating evidence was not gathered by the police at the crime scene. Barbara “Toni” Kline was stabbed by a right-handed attacker. Giarratano was left-handed, and his right arm was disabled. Bloody shoe prints in the apartment were never matched to Giarratano’s shoes.
Based on this information, the support of groups such as Amnesty International and the testimony of Catholic Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond, then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D) commuted Giarratano’s death sentence to life, with eligibility for parole 25 years after the 1979 conviction. With doubts about Giarratano’s guilt, Wilder said his decision was “complex but not difficult.”
Starting in 2004, the first year he was eligible, Giarratano was considered for and denied parole nine times. Finally, after 38 years of incarceration, which included cagings in Utah, Illinois and Virginia’s Red Onion supermax facility, Giarratano left prison on Wednesday.
I came to know Giarratano when Marie Deans, known as the angel of death row for her advocacy for the condemned, phoned in 1988 to urge me to look into his case. Deans was convinced Giarratano was innocent. Days after, I went to the Mecklenburg state prison in southern Virginia to interview Giarratano. It would be the first of eight visits with him — in that prison, another one in Illinois and the rest in Augusta County, Va. — that led to several columns in The Post and articles in the Baltimore Sun, the National Catholic Reporter and Corrections Today. Over nearly three decades, we exchanged well more than 100 letters.
I came to admire Giarratano for his staying power in the warehouse madness that prison is and for being freed up while not being free, a self-determined state that led him to become literate enough to write a piece for the Yale Law Journal, an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times and a brief that was argued before the Supreme Court.
On most trips to death row and the Augusta prison, I brought groups of my high school, college and law school students to have lunch with the inmates followed by seminars with Giarratano on the stark realities of confinement. Unfailingly, students’ minds were opened and hearts stirred.
When I asked the Augusta warden what his major problem was, he replied inmate violence. I suggested that he let Giarratano — possibly the most self-educated man in the prison — teach a course on alternatives to violence. For years, I had been bringing him books by Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Joan Baez, Gene Sharp, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other peacemakers. The warden agreed. I supplied the textbooks, ones I used for my peace studies courses in Washington. After the first 14-week semester, word spread and 300 men were wait-listed.
In 1994, “NBC Nightly News” sent Bob Abernethy to report the story, including the graduation ceremony when the prisoner-students were awarded peace certificates for completing the course. Sadly, it lasted only two years before officials at the state’s Department of Corrections ordered the warden to close it. Unfounded charges were leveled that funds from a $5,000 grant I gave the program were misused.
I was far from the only one who bonded with Giarratano and backed his claims of innocence. Steven Rosenfield promised Giarratano, recovering from a leg amputation, a job as a paralegal in his Charlottesville practice.
With a growing support network plus a proven resilience, a positive recovery for Giarratano is more than possible; it’s probable.
Read more about this issue: