BY FRANK GREEN
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
Mar 27, 2007
Virginia has agreed to pay $1.9 million to Earl Washington Jr. for a wrongful conviction that nearly cost the former farm worker his life and tarnished the reputation of the state's criminal-justice system.
If the agreement is approved by the court, it would end Washington's claims against authorities and toss out a $2.25 million verdict -- now on appeal -- that he won last year in federal court.
A jury in Charlottesville found that in 1983, former Virginia State Police investigator Curtis Reese Wilmore, who has since died, gave Washington details of the crime that only the killer could have known in order to buttress Washington's confession.
Washington, who is mildly retarded, falsely confessed to the June 4, 1982, rape and murder of Rebecca Lynn Williams, a 19-year-old mother of three, in Culpeper. He recanted the confession but was sentenced to death and came within nine days of being executed in 1985.
DNA testing in 2000 led to Washington's freedom and implicated a convicted rapist, Kenneth Maurice Tinsley. Tinsley, now facing capital-murder charges, was further implicated in 2004 DNA testing conducted as a result of Washington's suit.
Washington was not available for comment yesterday. He is married, lives in Virginia Beach and has a job with Support Services of Virginia. He will celebrate his fifth wedding anniversary and his 47th birthday in May.
"If the court signs off on it, obviously it's the end of a very, very long road," said Robert T. Hall, one of Washington's lawyers. "Earl will be relieved, and we'll be relieved that Earl will be taken care of for the balance of his life."
William G. Broaddus, one of the lawyers representing Wilmore's estate, said the Wilmore family is pleased that a condition of the agreement will be erasure of last year's judgment against Wilmore and the dismissal of the lawsuit.
Wilmore was left as the only defendant in the case initially filed in 2002 against numerous officials. Wilmore, however, appeared to be the only one in law enforcement who had misgivings about Washington's guilt and put them in writing.
Broaddus said that during the investigation, Wilmore reported the inconsistencies between Washington's statement and the facts of the crime and voluntarily described all of them to the jury that sentenced Washington to death in 1984.
"This reporting led many to question Mr. Washington's guilt, long before the advent of the DNA testing, which ultimately proved his actual innocence," he said.
The settlement agreement must still be approved by U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon, who indicated he would do so if the case is sent back to him by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where it is now pending.
According to papers filed in court last week, the agreement was reached after months of settlement negotiations involving the lawyers, the governor's office and mediators.
Details were not available. But the papers said the $1.9 million would be paid to both Washington and his lawyers.
Kevin Hall, spokesman for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, said he could confirm that there is a tentative settlement, "but until the court signs off on it, I'm not at liberty to say a whole lot more."
Wilmore's lawyers have already been paid $1 million in fees by the state to defend Wilmore. If paid, the $1.9 million would bring the cost to the state to nearly $3 million, not counting the cost of years of work by the Virginia attorney general's office.
Washington had also been convicted of an unrelated assault against an elderly woman. State legislators were asked in 2003 to compensate Washington $1 million for his wrongful murder conviction but refused.
Robert Hall said it appeared that because of limits on state coverage under its risk-management plan, no more than $2 million could be collected. And, he said, it was unclear that anything could be collected should the state contest liability.
"We were looking at another three to five years of litigation if we had to go that route," he said.
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