Earl Washington Jr. was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for a 1982 rape and murder for which the real killer was later found and convicted. Washington came within 9 days of execution in 1985, but was later proven innocent by DNA evidence.
A bar complaint was filed against former Culpeper prosecutor John C. Bennett alleging that he lied to the Virginia Attorney General’s office about being present during Washington’s confession. Though the Virginia State Bar eventually dismissed the complaint in 2009, the Richmond Times-Dispatch has written a detailed piece about the evidence against Bennett and why there is still concern that he has gone unpunished for a serious ethical violation.
These issues in the Washington case demonstrate the difficulties involved in holding prosecutors accountable through the state bar: in this case, the Virginia State Bar dismissed a detailed memo written by the Virginia Attorney General’s office and a newspaper report as unreliable evidence that Bennett said he was sure of Washington’s guilt because he personally witnessed his confession.
Frank Green, “Lawyer’s conduct in death-penalty case disputed,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, September 30, 2013.
…A complaint to the Virginia State Bar charged that, as Washington’s guilt first came under doubt, John C. Bennett, a former Culpeper commonwealth’s attorney, lied to the Virginia Attorney General’s Office in an effort to preserve Washington’s death sentence.
According to an assistant attorney general who wrote a memo and a newspaper reporter, Bennett told them he had witnessed Washington’s disputed 1983 confession. Bennett wasn’t even in the same county when the confession happened.
The previously undisclosed bar complaint against Bennett — and the confidential 2009 bar ruling dismissing it — were made available last week to the Richmond Times-Dispatch by one of Washington’s lawyers.
The bar subcommittee report concluded, after a full investigation, that “the evidence available could not reasonably be expected to support any allegation of misconduct under a ‘clear and convincing’ evidentiary standard.”
…The controversy began in 1993 when then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder was considering sparing Washington, a mentally challenged farmhand, from death by the electric chair after DNA evidence raised the possibility — but did not conclusively prove — Washington was innocent of a 1982 rape and murder in Culpeper.
On Oct. 26, 1993, as Washington’s life hung in the balance, Bennett, who won Washington’s death sentence, called the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, apparently in response to its investigation of the clemency petition then pending before Wilder.
McLees took the call from Bennett, and two days later he wrote a memorandum about the call and sent it to Rosenthal and other superiors.
McLees wrote that after briefing Bennett on the DNA testing, “His most interesting comment was that there was no doubt whatsoever in his mind about Washington’s guilt, and he had never so much as turned over in his sleep during the entire 11 years concerning Washington’s sentence.”
“The reason for this is that, although he never told anyone for fear of becoming a witness in the case, he was present in the Fauquier Sheriff’s Department office on the Sunday morning when Washington confessed.”
“Bennett said it was as clear as could be from Washington’s demeanor, body language, tone of voice, etc., that he was getting an enormous load off his mind by confessing,” McLees wrote in the memo.
Also, a June 2000 article in the Culpeper News quoted Bennett as saying he was sure of Washington’s guilt “based on everything I’ve learned in this case, including watching Earl Washington confess.”
Wilder commuted Washington’s sentence to life in 1994. In 2000, after further DNA testing exonerated Washington, he was pardoned by then-Gov. Jim Gilmore. The testing implicated the real killer, who was convicted in 2007.