- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2000

RICHMOND A man who spent a decade on Virginia's death row for a 1982 rape and murder received a pardon yesterday from Gov. James S. Gilmore III after DNA tests cleared him of the crime.

But Earl Washington Jr., whose death sentence was commuted to life in prison by former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder in 1994, will not be released by the pardon. He will continue to serve a 30-year sentence for beating a 73-year-old woman and burglarizing her home in 1983. He also used a gun stolen from the woman to shoot his brother but was not convicted of the shooting.

Mr. Gilmore said in a written statement announcing his decision that analyses of semen taken from the body of 19-year-old Rebecca L. Williams after her June 4, 1982, slaying showed that the material could not have come from Washington.

"Therefore, upon careful deliberation and review of all of the evidence as well as the circumstances in this matter, I have decided it is just and appropriate to intervene in the judicial process by granting Earl Washington an absolute pardon" for the rape and murder, Mr. Gilmore wrote.

The DNA tests identified semen on a blue blanket found at the crime scene as that of an already convicted rapist, and Mr. Gilmore ordered state police to reopen the investigation into the slaying.

Mr. Gilmore's spokesman, Mark A. Miner, said he could not comment on the identity of the rapist whose semen was found on the blanket.

Washington, who is mentally retarded, was arrested in May 1983 and charged with breaking into the Fauquier County home of Helen Weeks, 73, beating her and stealing her gun. He received two consecutive 15-year terms for the crime.

After his arrest, Washington confessed to the rape and murder of Miss Williams in Culpeper County nearly a year earlier. At his trial, Washington recanted his confession but was convicted on the available evidence and sentenced to death.

In 1994, Mr. Wilder commuted Washington's sentence to life in prison as a result of DNA tests that showed the presence of genetic material that belonged neither to Washington nor the victim's husband. That test, however, did not exclude Washington.

More sophisticated methods of testing now available were able to prove conclusively that the DNA did not belong to Washington.

Eric M. Freedman, a Hofstra University law professor who has handled Washington's case for 15 years, called Mr. Gilmore's decision not to free Washington immediately "bureaucratic buck-passing and governmental cowardice."

"The effect of the governor's action is to compound the original injustice committed by Virginia," Mr. Freedman said. Had Washington been convicted only of the beating and burglary, he would have been paroled seven years ago, he said.

"To keep Earl Washington in jail one day longer is a desperate attempt to defend the indefensible," he said.

Gerald Zerkin, a Richmond lawyer who had asked Mr. Gilmore for the pardon, said he had mixed emotions. While delighted with the pardon, he said he was disappointed that the governor did not set a release date for Washington.

"Mr. Gilmore could have solved this by saying that he should have been paroled many years ago and could have reduced it to time served," Mr. Zerkin said. "We think he was eligible by about 1993."

But Mr. Gilmore's spokesman said yesterday's decision does not exonerate Washington of all wrong.

"Earl Washington is certainly not a model citizen," Mr. Miner said. "He broke into a 73-year-old lady's home, robbed her and beat her with a chair."

Washington, 40, is in the Keen Mountain Correctional Center. Mr. Zerkin said it could take months for the matter to come before the state Parole Board.

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