By Brandon L. Garrett, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. You can follow updates related to Garrett’s book, “Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong,” at the book’s Facebook page here.
On January 20, 1984, Earl Washington, Jr. was found guilty of rape and murder in the state of Virginia and sentenced to death. After nine years on death row, DNA testing cast doubt on his conviction and saved his life. However, he spent another eight years in prison before more sophisticated DNA technology proved his innocence and convicted the guilty man.
DNA exonerations have shattered confidence in the criminal justice system by exposing how often we have convicted the innocent and let the guilty walk free. Wrongful convictions are ubiquitous in the news. In just the past few weeks, yet another innocent man was freed by DNA tests in Virginia. Improvements to eyewitness identification procedures in response to wrongful convictions have been considered by legislators, scandals have wracked dozens of crime laboratories and Congress is considering legislation in response, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that civil rights actions can be used to seek DNA testing, In my new book, Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong, I examine what went wrong in the cases of the first 250 wrongfully convicted people to be exonerated by DNA testing. I studied their trial transcripts, pre-trial hearings, appellate and post-conviction rulings, and confession statements.
A close look at the transcripts from Washington’s original criminal trial sheds light on how he was convicted in the first place. His lawyer had never tried a death penalty case before, and it showed. The guilt phase of the trial was only five hours long. The prosecution presented a series of witnesses, but Washington was defended for all of forty minutes. His lawyer never claimed he was innocent, never challenged his confession, and never hired an expert to develop how he confessed due to mental retardation. The jury heard that Washington confessed to a series of details that supposedly only the killer could have known. We now know this confession was false and this mentally retarded young man likely just answered “Yes, sir,” each time law enforcement told him more about how the crime happened.