The Justice Project - Profile of Injustice

Earl Washington, Jr.

Washington grew up extremely poor in rural Virginia, one of five children in a family marked by parental drinking and violence. As a child, he was diagnosed as brain-damaged and mentally retarded. He attended special education classes and dropped out of school at fifteen after failing all his courses. A teacher made “what would become a prophetic observation: ‘[Washington] is very easily led. He tries to do what is asked, but has no idea what is expected of him.’” Washington knows “some” but not all, of the letters of the alphabet. Washington worked as a farmhand, and his employers noticed his extreme suggestibility. As one stated, “[Washington] was going to agree with whatever you said. Sometimes he knew what you were talking about. Sometimes he didn’t.”

One of Washington’s defense attorneys told journalists that, in his view, Washington, an African-American in a southern town, had “found that the way to get by in his community as a mentally challenged black man was [to say] ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘Yes, sir,’ is an easy answer for him. It means he’s pleased his interrogator.” In an interview with Human Rights Watch, Washington’s lawyer elaborated: “Earl Washington developed a coping mechanism of pleasing authority figures. When police let him know what they wanted, he gave them that. He didn’t see the danger.”

Earl Washington Jr. came within nine days of being executed for a murder he did not commit. Washington spent nearly 18 years in prison, including nine on death row, before DNA testing led to his exoneration on February 12, 2001.

In her book, “An Expendable Man: The Near-Execution of Earl Washington, Jr.,” Margaret Edds explains, “Washington was freed in February, 2001, not because of the legal and judicial systems, but in spite of them. While DNA testing was central to his eventual pardon, such tests would never have occurred without an unusually talented and committed legal team and a series of incidents that are best described as pure luck.”


In 1983, Washington was taken into custody by police on charges unrelated to the murder that led to his wrongful conviction. While in custody, Washington waived his Miranda rights and was coerced by police into “confessing” to several crimes that he did not commit. One of the crimes that Washington “confessed” to was the 1982 rape and murder of Rebecca Williams. Police eventually acknowledged that Washington could not possibly have committed most of the crimes he had admitted to, but were less willing to let go of his confession in the Williams case, which had gone unsolved for a year. At trial, however, Washington’s lawyer failed to inform the jury of Washington’s other false confessions. His lawyer also failed to present evidence of Washington’s mental limitations and low IQ - factors that played a considerable role in his confessions.

Washington later recanted his confession, insisting that he had not committed the crime. He said, “I guess I just agreed with whatever [the police] told me, that’s what I agreed. Whatever they said, I agreed with, I guess.” In his “confession,” his trial lawyers said, “Earl, on more than ten to fifteen occasions simply uttered the words either yes or no.”

Police and prosecutors insisted on Washington’s guilt despite various odd aspects of the information volunteered. Washington, for instance, told the police that Rebecca Williams, his supposed victim, was black, although she was, in fact, white. He described her as “short” although she was 5¢8². He said he kicked in the door, which was found undamaged. He said he stabbed her two or three times, rather than the 38 times she was actually stabbed. He also said she was alone, although Williams’s two small children were present.

Despite Washington’s mental retardation, the trial court found that he had voluntarily waived his Miranda rights and that his confession was valid - even though the court knew that he had been found to be innocent of virtually everything else he had “confessed” to doing. After a three-day trial - in which prosecutors did not reveal to the jury Washington’s various false confessions - Earl Washington was sentenced to death.

During the trial, Washington’s lawyer, John Scott, failed to raise several key issues. Scott never sought an independent psychiatric evaluation and thus was unable to prove that Washington did not understand the larger implications of waiving his Miranda rights and confessing to the murder. Scott also failed to point out the large gaps in police notes from the interrogation that indicated Washington’s confession was coerced.

Subsequent appeals to state and federal courts were all denied, despite newly discovered forensic evidence that showed the seminal fluid found at the crime scene could not have been Washington’s. In 1993, new DNA tests were performed on the blood and semen found on the victim, and the results did not match Earl Washington’s DNA. Governor Wilder of Virginia nevertheless refused to overturn Washington’s conviction, arguing that perhaps Washington had had an accomplice (despite the victim’s dying words, in which she said her assailant had been alone), but on his last day in office he did reduce Washington’s sentence to life in prison.

In 2000, a new series of DNA tests ordered by Wilder’s successor, Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, showed once again that there was no trace of Washington’s blood or semen at the crime scene. After 18 years in prison, including nine and a half on death row, Washington received a pardon from Governor Gilmore and was released on February 12, 2001.