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Fatal Flaws: The Case of Earl Washington
Earl Washington after his exoneration and release (Photo courtesy Barry Weinstein)

Earl Washington spent nearly 18 years in
prison, including almost 10 years on
death row, and came within nine days of
being put to death in Virginia's electric chair. Washington says he could hear the guards preparing it for him. "You heard a humming," says Washington, "because they tested the chair every day."

Years later, DNA evidence proved he was innocent, and after another uphill legal fight, 17 years and nine months after going to jail, he was set free. Washington had been convicted largely on a single piece of evidence: his own confession to the rape and murder a 19-year-old mother of three from Culpepper, Virginia. His defenders say the confession was coerced, and that police took advantage of a mildly retarded man whose strategy of coping in the world was "to get along, you go along."

READ: Washington's statement to police.

VIEW: Timeline of the case.

READ: Conditional Pardon.
Absolute Pardon

MORE: "Requium for Frank Lee Smith" from Frontline

In the end, DNA evidence proved he was innocent, but the state has still not given any compensation for the years they took from him. "Only thing I really want is someone to apologize for what happened," says Washington with a note of weariness. "Looks like they won't." Read the full story...

Did Virginia execute an innocent man? The Story of Roger Coleman.

DNA has exonerated many, but there has never been a proven example of someone innocent being put to death. Many opponents of capital punishment believe that a vial of evidence held in the lab of forensic scientist Ed Blake in California might be the first real proof that one man was killed in the face of scientific proof of his innocence.

Roger Coleman was convicted of raping and murdering his sister-in-law. His inexperienced lawyers failed to present all the evidence, and a clerical error kept him from winning an appeal. He was electrocuted in 1992.

Now, modern DNA techniques can prove his guilt or innocence, but the state of Virginia argues the "doctrine of finality," and wants no further inquiries in the case.

Read Roger Coleman's story in "May God Have Mercy" by John Tucker - the first three chapters.

The decision to test or not is now in the hands of the Virginia Supreme Court. Scientist Ed Blake says he will not test it without the court's permission, but he also says that he will not send it back to Virginia, whatever the court decides. "Nobody can force me to send it back," Blake says defiantly. "At issue here is the public's right to know." Read the full story...

(UPDATE: DNA tests conducted in January 2006 confirmed the original guilty verdict in this case. Click here for more on this story.)

Other Stories of Innocence and Exoneration from the Center on Wrongful Convictions
(Photo Jennifer Linzer)   (Photo Jennifer Linzer)  

Ford Heights Four:
Kenneth Adams was one of the "Ford Heights Four," convicted on what was later discovered to be a coerced confession. After spending almost two decades in prison, he was released. The sheriff's department settled with the four for $36 million, the largest such settlement in history.



Coerced Testimony:
Paula Gray was 17 years-old, and borderline mentally retarded. After being questioned over two nights by police, she testified that she had watched Verneal Johnson, Williae Rainge, and Dennis Williams rape and murder a woman, and shoot another man. It was later shown that her confession was coerced by police.


(Photo Jennifer Linzer)   (Photo Jennifer Linzer)  

The Dream Murder:
Steven Linscott approached Oak Park police at the urging of friends and told them about a dream he had about a similar murder. Although there were relatively few and not-at-all-amazing similarities between the dream and the actual crime, authorities called Linscott's statement a confession and charged him with murder and rape.



Exoneration, Without DNA
Without DNA evidence, it is much harder to win exonerations for the wrongfully convicted. Gary Gauger was charged with the murder of his parents at their farm, where they operated a motorcycle shop. After an all-night interrogation, he made statements that police claimed constituted a confession. Police misconduct led to his being set free, and after an FBI wiretap, police charged a motorcycle gang with the murder of Gauger's parents. Read...



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