Innocent man escapes death row thanks to DNA evidence

By on February 22, 2001

The death penalty is a tool that should be used only when there is no doubt that the accused killed another in cold blood in a way that is so horrific only death could be a suitable punishment.
Execution is not something that should be taken lightly. In the past decade, DNA testing has become a popular method of determining the real murderer. However, this hasn’t become widely accepted, as it should be.
Earl Washington Jr. is living proof that DNA testing is a useful commodity. It can save an innocent man’s life and send a murderer to prison. Washington, 40, has spent nine and a half years on death row in Virginia for the 1982 rape and murder of Rebecca Lynn Williams.
Illiterate and mildly retarded with an IQ of 69, Washington confessed to the murder even though there was no physical evidence he had even been at the scene.
In 1993, DNA tests suggested that he was not the man who killed Williams. Then-Governor L. Douglas Wilder reduced his sentence to life in prison.
In the fall of 2000 further DNA tests found genetic material that linked two other men to the Williams murder. Governor Jim Gilmore pardoned Washington, and as of Feb. 12, he is a free man.
This case has led Virginia, whose death penalty rates are second only to Texas, to rethink the death penalty and DNA testing qualifications.
While America should not abolish the death penalty, it does need to take a closer look at tools that prove one’s guilt. We may now have reached the point in time where a jury of civilians should not have the right to convict a person of a crime unless there is solid evidence to back up that conviction.
Washington is now living in an apartment of a house that is run by a support center for the mentally disabled, undoubtedly nicer than the cell in which he did not deserve to live in.
It is disheartening to think that a person with disabilities could slip through the cracks of the American justice system. Washington’s case is reminiscent of the blockbuster film, “The Green Mile.” Michael Clark Duncan’s imprisoned character had several similarities to Washington. It is frightening to think that real men might have the same fate as the fictional movie character.
Washington is a lucky man because not every wrongly convicted person has the opportunity to walk free. There could be hundreds of men and women who will never be able to see their children, do their job or enjoy life because they were unfairly executed. And that is something the government needs to think about.


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