X5043 bc-dna 10-04 0543

By Brooke A. Masters

The Washington Post

Earl Washington Jr., who was pardoned Monday for a rape and murder that brought him within five days of execution, is not eligible for immediate release and will have to wait six weeks to learn whether he will be paroled, officials said Wednesday.

Gov. James S. Gilmore III wiped out Washington’s conviction for the 1982 stabbing of Rebecca Lynn Williams after tests found no trace of the inmate’s DNA on evidence collected from the Culpeper, Va., crime scene. But Gilmore did not address Washington’s unrelated conviction for hitting his elderly neighbor with a chair.

The capital murder conviction made it difficult for Washington to earn time off his sentence for good behavior. So Virginia Department of Corrections officials re-examined his prison record Wednesday to give him credit for the “good time” he missed because of that conviction. Their calculations determined that Washington, 40, will not be eligible for automatic release on the wounding charge until Feb. 12, Parole Board Chairman James Jenkins said.

But because Washington’s 30-year sentence for burglary and malicious wounding was imposed before Virginia abolished parole in 1995, the inmate can still ask the five-member parole board for early release. He will be considered for discretionary parole as soon as he has been interviewed by a board examiner and his psychological and institutional evaluations have been completed, Jenkins said.

The board, which paroled just 1.9 percent of violent felons last year, will probably make a decision in about six weeks, Jenkins said.

“I know Mr. Washington would like to be out, but our job is to protect the public,” Jenkins said. “He’s not entitled to skip the process.”

Calculations criticized

Washington’s lawyers sharply criticized the calculations by the Department of Corrections. Based on Virginia’s own statistics, they argue that Washington probably would have been released on parole years ago were it not for his conviction in Williams’s death. Before parole was abolished, felons generally earned 25 days off their sentence for every 30 days they served. In Washington’s case, that would have prompted his release last year.

“You don’t have to be Solomon or the pope to realize that basic human decency compels them to release him,” said Barry Scheck, one of Washington’s lawyers.

Largely illiterate with an IQ of 69, Washington was arrested in 1983 after he broke into Hazel Weeks’s home during a drinking spree to steal a gun he knew she kept on the refrigerator. When she surprised him in the kitchen, he hit her with a chair. Arrested by Fauquier sheriff’s deputies, he readily confessed to that attack and, in response to questioning, said he had killed Williams, 19, nearly a year before. No fingerprints or biological evidence ever connected him to Williams’s death.

A 1993 DNA test cast doubt his guilt and prompted Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D) to commute Washington’s sentence to life. This fall, more precise DNA tests found genetic material belonging to two other men, prompting Gilmore to reopen the investigation and pardon Washington.