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An Expendable Man: The Near-Execution of Earl Washington, Jr.

Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 243
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  • Book Info
    An Expendable Man
    Book Description:

    How is it possible for an innocent man to come within nine days of execution? An Expendable Man answers that question through detailed analysis of the case of Earl Washington Jr., a mentally retarded, black farm hand who was convicted of the 1983 rape and murder of a 19-year-old mother of three in Culpeper, Virginia. He spent almost 18 years in Virginia prisons - 9 1/2 of them on death row - for a murder he did not commit.This book reveals the relative ease with which individuals who live at society's margins can be wrongfully convicted, and the extraordinary difficulty of correcting such a wrong once it occurs.Washington was eventually freed in February 2001 not because of the legal and judicial systems, but in spite of them. While DNA testing was central to his eventual pardon, such tests would never have occurred without an unusually talented and committed legal team and without a series of incidents that are best described as pure luck.Margaret Edds makes the chilling argument that some other expendable men almost certainly have been less fortunate than Washington. This, she writes, is the secret, shameful underbelly of America's retention of capital punishment. Such wrongful executions may not happen often, but anyone who doubts that innocent people have been executed in the United States should remember the remarkable series of events necessary to save Earl Washington Jr. from such a fate.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2279-4
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Timeline
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. 1 Countdown
    (pp. 1-9)

    SHARDS OF CRYSTALLINE LIGHT exploded inside Marie Deans’s skull. A rainbow of refracted colors filled her mind’s eye. Another August morning was dawning moist and heavy in Richmond, Virginia, a city struggling to break free of its Old South past. Another migraine was forming in the recesses of her brain.

    Eleven-year-old Robert and his best friend Hashim still slept, nestled in a jumble of comic books, their latest passion. Lists of attorneys, addresses, and telephone numbers crowded Marie’s own space in the low-rent, West End apartment that she shared with her youngest son. As the head of the Virginia Coalition...

  6. 2 Death in Culpeper
    (pp. 10-15)

    MELISSA MARIE WAS LATE for the school bus again.

    Her mother, Rebecca Williams, barefoot, tousled, clad in blue jeans and a red-and-white football jersey, flung open the front door of 682 Willis Lane in Culpeper’s Village Apartments and signaled to the bus driver. Missy was coming. Moments later, the preschooler straggled out, stopped for a hug, and disappeared onto the bus.

    Becky Williams scooped up the baby from the apartment doorstep and headed inside for the next leg of her morning ritual. Once Missy was off to school, there were still Melinda May and Misty Michele to feed and dress....

  7. 3 A Piedmont Son
    (pp. 16-26)

    HISTORY AND A RARE BEAUTY entwine in Virginia’s Piedmont, as do the poles of wealth and opportunity. Culpeper County, the home of Rebecca Williams and her family of working-class whites, and neighboring Fauquier County, where Earl Washington came of age, sit west and slightly south of Washington, D.C. Their villages and byways erupt in a confection of pink and white blossoms in springtime and a splash of autumnal hues in the fall, drawing hordes of sight-seers from cities and suburbs to the east.

    In colonial times Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who lived nearby, made their way by horseback and...

  8. 4 Arrest
    (pp. 27-34)

    MRS. HAZEL NANCY WEEKS had just returned from the bathroom when she heard the crash and sat up in bed.

    According to the clock, it was about 3 a.m. Without her glasses, it was hard to tell the exact time. Most likely, a storm was brewing and the wind had knocked a branch into the front of the house. It sounded as if glass had broken.

    A more timid or less practical soul might have burrowed under the covers. But Hazel Weeks had not spent her seventy-eight years as the daughter of one farmer and the wife of another for...

  9. 5 Confessions
    (pp. 35-44)

    INVESTIGATOR TERRY SCHRUM did not plan to stay when he walked into the Fauquier County sheriff’s department that Saturday morning. It was a day off. Summer was fast approaching, and there was plenty to do at home. But the jailhouse was abuzz with news of the break-in the previous night at the home of Mrs. Hazel Weeks. The suspect, Earl Washington Jr., had been captured in a field after a three-hour manhunt. He was here in the county jail. Within moments, Schrum’s plans changed.

    “I knew Mrs. Weeks, didn’t know her personally. I knew her son Jimmy and I knew...

  10. 6 The Trial
    (pp. 45-68)

    PROSPECTIVE JURORS SHED overcoats and stamped snow from their boots as they filed into the Culpeper County courthouse for the opening of the Rebecca Williams murder trial. The county was experiencing the nastiest weather of the winter. A morning snowstorm had slowed traffic to a creep, but highway conditions did not impede the turnout for the long-awaited trial. Nineteen months had passed since the young mother’s death, and in a county of about twenty-three thousand souls almost everyone appeared to know something about the upcoming event.

    By the end of that day, January 18, 1984, lawyers questioned thirty-eight potential jurors;...

  11. 7 Prisoner
    (pp. 69-82)

    DEATH ROW WAS a cauldron stoked to boil when Earl Washington Jr. arrived there, deep in the piney woods of the Southside, a few miles from the North Carolina border, on May 9, 1984. Three weeks later, the rural farmhand sat paralyzed in front of a television screen as a group of his fellow inmates outwitted their captors at the Mecklenburg Correctional Center and staged one of the most brazen prison escapes in American history. Armed with metal shanks, the prisoners seized control of the death pod and, masquerading as a bomb squad handling live ordinance, duped their way out...

  12. 8 Deadline
    (pp. 83-95)

    ERIC FREEDMAN was still at his desk in the 345 Park Avenue offices of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison when the telephone rang at 10 p.m.

    On the line was a young associate, Marty Geer, who had flown from New York to Virginia that morning—August 14, 1985—to identify possible representatives for a class action lawsuit. Their prestigious Manhattan law firm had decided to provide legal support for a complaint filed pro se (without attorney) the previous month by a Virginia death row prisoner named Joe Giarratano. Giarratano was attacking as unconstitutional the failure of the state of Virginia...

  13. 9 A Discovery
    (pp. 96-112)

    THE AUGUST STAY of Earl Washington’s execution released tension that had been building for months. With Judge Sullenberger’s order, Marie Deans, Eric Freedman, and other advocates took a collective breath and settled into what would be the second phase of the prisoner’s defense. Two years, three months, and seven days separated Washington’s arrest from the order to halt his death. It would be another eight years before his habeas appeals worked their way through the state and federal courts. Washington was twenty-three when he was arrested, twenty-five when he was almost executed in 1985, and thirty-three when the appeals ended....

  14. 10 Appeals
    (pp. 113-129)

    THE ITALIANATE COURTHOUSE and post office at 10thand Main, even more than the state Capitol rising behind it, was for many years the public forum of downtown Richmond. Secretaries, junior associates, and partners from the city’s major banks, its brokerage houses, and law firms rubbed shoulders as they waited to post a letter on the bustling main floor or passed through security to the cloistered courtrooms above. Upstairs, in the cavernous hallway outside the chambers of the 4thU.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, small groups of men and women wearing dark suits and starched shirts spoke in hushed tones...

  15. 11 Strategies
    (pp. 130-151)

    IN THE SUMMER leading up to the 4thCircuit’s September 1993 opinion, Earl Washington’s case moved to the forefront for Marie Deans, Bob Hall, Eric Freedman, Jerry Zerkin, and Barry Weinstein. The five began conferring as a team.

    After the June 9 hearing before Judges Butzner, Phillips, and Wilkinson, Washington’s supporters expected that the 4thCircuit panel would rule promptly. If the ruling was negative, and there was reason to think it would be, the slow pace of the last eight years would accelerate. The U.S. Supreme Court likely would reject a petition, and Washington might be scheduled for execution...

  16. 12 An Ending
    (pp. 152-165)

    BARRY WEINSTEIN had not slept well for three days. He’d spent the last week capping the clemency campaign. Calls zipped back and forth to the governor’s office. Letters were written, contacts made. Henry Erlich’s analysis of the vaginal swabs taken from Rebecca Williams had been rushed to the Capitol. Now, it was the last full day of Governor Wilder’s administration, and there was nothing to do but wait.

    Team members in Northern Virginia, New York, and Richmond were staying close to their telephones. Weinstein was trying to perform a normal day’s work in his office at the Resource Center, but...

  17. 13 Revival
    (pp. 166-183)

    OFRA BIKEL FEIGNED nonchalance as she asked Dr. Paul Ferrara for copies of the state’s DNA tests involving Earl Washington, including—she casually noted—the most recent.

    “I’ll get them for you,” replied Dr. Ferrara, the nationally prominent director of the Virginia Division of Forensic Science.

    As Ferrara left the room on this day in the spring of 1999, Bikel and her research assistant exchanged a meaningful glance, then resumed their uninterested pose.

    Moments later, the documentary filmmaker held in her hands the January 14, 1994 report that had been denied Bob Hall and the other members of Washington’s team...

  18. 14 Freedom Delayed
    (pp. 184-195)

    A ONE-LINE NEWS ALERT from the Associated Press sped over the Virginia wires at 7:26 p.m. on October 2, too late for the evening news. Governor Jim Gilmore was granting Earl Washington Jr. an absolute pardon in the death of Rebecca Williams. It was the first such pardon for an individual sentenced to death in Virginia in the almost quarter-century since the death penalty was reinstated byGregg v. Georgia.

    Already, telephones were ringing from Virginia to New York to Georgia. In the late afternoon, after Gilmore cemented his decision, Walter Felton made courtesy calls to several members of Washington’s...

  19. 15 The Aftermath
    (pp. 196-212)

    THE STORY OF Earl Washington Jr. is more than an account of what happened to one man. It is a lesson in the frailty of human institutions, how they are prone to value expediency over truth, order over complication, official interpretations over private claims. The criminal justice system may, as former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore once said, do “exceedingly well.” But it is still subject to flawed memory, rumor, inexact science, mistaken judgment, and at times outright deceit. The safeguards against false imprisonment and execution are many—among them, a presumption of innocence, the guarantee of legal representation, and access...

  20. Notes
    (pp. 213-230)
  21. Recommended Reading
    (pp. 231-234)
  22. Index
    (pp. 235-242)
  23. About the Author
    (pp. 243-243)