Earl Washington Jr. Wins His Freedom

Virginia Forced To Admit His Innocence After Years On Death Row


Earl Washington Jr.
By: Virginia Harabin

After 18 years in Virginia prisons -- nine and a half of those years on death row -- Earl Washington Jr. is free at last.

Earl’s victory against one of the nation’s biggest death penalty states made national news because it marks still another example of how brutally the odds have been stacked against people facing the death penalty.

Earl’s story is shocking. He is a Black man with an IQ of 69 who was convicted of the 1982 rape and murder of a white woman. He didn’t know the first detail about the crime: the race of the victim, the location of the scene or whether witnesses were present. But the cops forced him to admit that he did it, and this "confession" was enough to send him to death row.

By 1994, Washington’s new attorneys had DNA evidence showing that he wasn’t guilty. But in Virginia, you have only 21 days after sentencing to present new evidence of innocence -- even if it can save your life.

The 21-day rule is a cruel joke. Its purpose is to make executions happen faster. Earl is alive today only because of years of work by anti-death penalty activists.

Days before his death date, Earl’s only option was to petition for clemency. It was clear that Earl was innocent but was going to be killed anyway -- and Gov. Douglas Wilder was forced to commute Earl’s sentence to life in prison.

Pressure from attorneys and activists forced the state to permit Earl more sophisticated DNA testing. Last year, once again, Earl showed that he was not guilty. Even though he won a full pardon, it took months for the state to release him.

Why wouldn’t they let him go? What happened to Earl Washington gives us a good look at a broken system that feeds on injustice and corruption. We need to keep fighting for a national moratorium and for an end to the racist death penalty.