New York Times Editorial
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.
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.
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.
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.