- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2006

CHARLOTTESVILLE — A federal jury yesterday awarded $2.25 million to exonerated death-row inmate Earl Washington Jr., ruling that his confession to a rape and murder he did not commit was deliberately fabricated by a state police investigator.

Mr. Washington filed the lawsuit against the estate of Curtis Reese Wilmore, who died in 1994.

“I feel great — and happy,” a smiling Mr. Washington said after the verdict.

Mr. Washington’s attorney, Peter Neufeld, said after the decision that the case boiled down to “two men in a room with the door closed. When they walk out, there’s a confession with all kinds of nonpublished details.”

Said Mr. Neufeld: “We learn years later that one of the men could not have possibly have known those details. Therefore, they had to come from the other fellow in this case, Special Agent Curtis Reese Wilmore.”

An attorney for the Wilmore estate, William G. Broaddus, declined to comment after the verdict but said he is considering appealing the ruling.

Mr. Washington wasn’t seeking damages against Mr. Wilmore’s estate, Mr. Neufeld said, but wants to be compensated by the state government for Mr. Wilmore’s actions.

“When he engaged in misconduct he did it as an agent of the commonwealth,” Mr. Neufeld said, adding that the attorney general’s office has paid powerhouse law firm McGuireWoods to defend Mr. Wilmore’s estate.

“At this point in time, the state should do what’s morally responsible: Put an end to this gentleman’s ordeal and compensate him fairly,” Mr. Neufeld said.

A telephone message the Associated Press left yesterday with the attorney general’s office was not immediately returned.

Mr. Washington’s attorneys claimed that Mr. Wilmore fed their client, who is mildly retarded, specific details that he used in his false confession to the 1982 slaying of Rebecca Lynn Williams in Culpeper, Va.

He was sentenced to death on the basis of the detailed confession and spent nearly 18 years in prison, coming within nine days of execution.

After DNA testing in 1993 cast doubt on Mr. Washington’s guilt, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder commuted his sentence to life in prison. In 2000, more sophisticated DNA testing linked a convicted rapist to the crime and prompted Gov. James S. Gilmore III to pardon Mr. Washington, who now is a maintenance worker in Virginia Beach.

Mr. Neufeld said he hopes that Virginia’s government “will take this as a learning opportunity” and mandate the recording of all police interrogations to make sure that the innocent are cleared and only the guilty are convicted.

“If they don’t do it, there will be more Earl Washingtons, and next time they won’t be spared their life nine days from execution,” he said. “It’ll be too late; they’ll be dead.”

U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon instructed the jurors that they could only award damages if they found that Mr. Wilmore fabricated evidence against Mr. Washington, deliberately did it, and in doing so caused Mr. Washington’s conviction and death sentence.

Mr. Washington’s attorneys said his confession included crime-scene details that he could have known only if someone else fed them to him. For example, Mr. Washington said he left a bloodstained shirt in a dresser drawer in a back bedroom of the victim’s home. Police never revealed the information publicly.

During the trial, a psychologist testified that Mr. Washington’s mental deficit made him easily led during police investigations.

Mr. Wilmore’s attorneys acknowledged Mr. Washington’s innocence, but argued that Mr. Wilmore didn’t fabricate the confession.

The verdict came after nearly two weeks of testimony and capped an eventful week for Mr. Washington, who celebrated his 46th birthday Wednesday and his fourth wedding anniversary Thursday.

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