Justice Begrudged

April 10, 2004

The criminal justice system of Virginia has long been haunted by Earl Washington Jr.,  a pliable farmhand with the I.Q. of a 10-year-old who spent 17 years in prison for a murder he did not commit before being grudgingly freed. 
His lawyers and news organizations are now in federal court trying to force open the police records of Mr. Washington's arrest and conviction, one of the more notorious injustices in state history. Mr. Washington, retarded and black in a rural white community, was convicted on the basis of a confession in which he was painstakingly coached by police.

"Well that's wrong, Earl, she was white," a detective corrected when Mr. Washington identified the rape-homicide victim as black. "Oh, she was white," the suspect meekly amended, according to the transcript of the 1982 interrogation in which Mr. Washington, amiable to a fault, agreed to waive his right to a lawyer. 

Despite evidence that he was railroaded - three other "confessions" harvested by detectives were soon voided as factually impossible - authorities stood by his conviction. After years on death row, he was not freed until his lawyers forced the state into an evidence test that showed no match for his D.N.A. Even this pardon was qualified as detectives spitefully listed him as a continuing suspect in the murder, speculating he might have somehow murdered, if not raped, the victim. 

Mr. Washington's pro bono lawyers in the Innocence Project have now established factual innocence. After a long struggle, they subpoenaed case evidence for further testing over the objections of the state police. An outside laboratory reported that the D.N.A. positively is that of a convicted rapist who turns out to be already in state prison. Truly dedicated justice authorities might have reached the same conclusion years ago. 

What Mr. Washington now deserves is his good name back, devoid of further asterisks put next to it by brazenly inept criminal authorities. What the public deserves is an honest vetting of the judicial process that allowed his name to be 
sullied in the first place. 

Source: N.Y. Times