Here's Washington's story, as I wrote it years ago:
The case of Earl Washington: a four-part series
Gov. James Gilmore last week ordered new DNA testing on evidence from a 1984 Culpeper case, testing defense lawyers predict will exonerate a local man who has been behind bars for 17 years, 10 of them on death row.
Gilmore on June 1 ordered additional testing in the case of Earl Washington, a mentally retarded man from Bealeton convicted at age 24 of having raped and murdered Rebecca Lynn Williams in June of 1982 at Village Apartments on Willis Lane in Culpeper.
Washington was picked up 11 months after the crime on an unrelated charge. He was tried for capital murder in Culpeper Circuit Court, found guilty by a jury Jan. 20, 1984, and sentenced to death three months later. This was the first imposition of the death penalty in Culpeper in 30 years.
The governor, who has the power to pardon Washington, issued this statement last Thursday: "Since 1994 [when Washington's death sentence was commuted to life in prison by former Gov. Wilder] DNA science and technology have improved to the point that futher testing of the samples taken from the victim might produce more conclusive results than were available to Gov. Wilder."
Since it was first used in the prosecution of a rape case in 1987, DNA testing has become accepted in every court in the country as proof of guilt and innocence. During the 1990s DNA testing freed 64 people from prison and death row, though none from death row in Virginia, as well as forestalling the trials of thousands of suspects and being used in numerous convictions.
Washington's lawyers reported last week that they are pleased with the governor's decision and confident the additional testing will lead to their client being released from prison. The lawyers said they have informed Washington, who is being held in the Keen Mountain Correctional Center in southwest Virginia, of the decision, and that he replied: "That's good. I've been waiting too long."
Until Gilmore announced his decision last week, local officials continued to maintain the right man had been convicted. John Bennett, who prosecuted the case, as well as the current commonwealth's attorney, Gary Close, who covered the case as a reporter for the Culpeper Star Exponent, still say that Washington is guilty. "I'm convinced the correct person was convicted," Close said.
But over the years the case has been covered by local, national and international media, and a growing number of people have come to doubt Washington's guilt. Most recently, the PBS television program Frontline featured Washington and three others in a show titled "The Case for Innocence," arguing that the local man was wrongly convicted and imprisoned.
More than a decade after Washington's conviction, after numerous appeals in the case were denied, Gov. Douglas Wilder, on his last day in office in January 1994, commuted the sentence from death to life in prison.
A team of five people trying to help Washington, four of whom are lawyers, maintains that Washington's innocence has already been demonstrated by DNA tests done in 1993 and 1994, evidence which was available to Wilder but not to the jury at the original trial or to appeals courts that upheld the conviction.
Washington was convicted primarily on the basis of his confession. His lawyers explain that confession by saying Washington, whose IQ has been placed by experts at 69 (100 is average; 69 places him in the bottom 2 percent of the population) tends to answer questions in whatever way he thinks will please his questioners.
The Bealeton man, who was originally arrested for assault and breaking and entering in Fauquier, confessed to several other serious crimes at the same time he confessed to the Williams killing. He pleaded guilty to the assault and breaking and entering charges (technically malicious wounding and statutory burglary) after his Culpeper trial but was cleared of the other crimes to which he confessed after eye-witness testimony and other evidence showed he could not have committed them.