Wrongfully Convicted Death Row Inmate Wins Civil Suit with Help from Virginia Law Students
Law students Kate Stanley (left) and Meredith Horton researched evidence law on the Earl Washington case.
It took a moment to sink in when the verdict was read, but Earl Washington Jr. knew things were going to go his way when the jury agreed with his claim that a police officer fabricated evidence in Washington’s criminal trial. Having spent nine years on death row and coming within nine days of execution, Washington was seeking compensation for pain and suffering caused by a wrongful conviction due to the false confession. Aided by U.Va. law students who worked on the case, Washington’s win in a federal circuit court in Charlottesville marked the first-ever verdict quantifying damages for pain and suffering caused by being on death row wrongfully. The $2.25 million verdict also was reportedly the largest award in a federal civil rights case in Virginia. As one of 175 people nationwide to be exonerated through postconviction DNA testing, Washington offered law students involved in the trial a true-life example of what can go wrong—and right—in the American legal system.
Law professor Brandon Garrett, who previously worked for Innocence Project co-director Peter Neufeld, an attorney on the case, connected interested students with Washington’s legal team. Attorneys working for the Innocence Project, founded in 1992 to free wrongfully convicted death row inmates through postconviction DNA testing, helped exonerate Washington in 1993.
Neufeld and his team asked the students to research unique evidence law issues that arise in wrongful conviction cases, including what evidence from the prior trial should be admitted, what parts of the criminal trial are relevant to the civil case, and what damages could be considered.
“This was a landmark case, one of the first of its kind in the state,” said second-year law student Meredith Horton, who assisted in researching for the trial. “I saw this as a unique and perfect opportunity for me given my interests and I’m glad I took advantage of it.”
Horton and Kate Stanley, a third-year law student, worked closely with Debi Cornwall, a staff attorney at Cochran Neufeld & Scheck. “It was an exciting thing to be a part of. It’s a national news story and such a great human story for Earl Washington,” said Stanley. “It had such a happy outcome for such a sad story. To be a part of that was really an honor.”
Although the students thought their role was just a small part of the victory, the attorneys, not to mention Washington, appreciated their help.
“The research played a very significant role on the admissibility issues involving very important pieces of evidence,” Neufeld said.
An additional dozen students worked with a jury consultant gathering data and helping the lawyers decide who to pick from the 70 juror questionnaires.
“The students’ involvement was sensational,” said attorney Bob Hall, who has represented Washington for the past 22 years. “The enormous amount of data collected and used in the jury selection—it’s more than one team member could assess even if they had the time.”
Jury selection was an important part of the case, Garrett explained. “Civil rights cases aren’t tried every day in Virginia. It was critical for the plaintiff’s lawyers to carefully think about what kind of jurors they want in a federal civil rights trial in Virginia, particularly a case involving a black, mentally retarded man who alleges the police officer was responsible for his wrongly spending close to 10 years on death row.”
Washington was the first and only man to be exonerated from Virginia’s death row since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s. Since his exoneration, Virginia legislators have passed a number of reforms to address how it handles death penalty cases and criminal defense, and the governor has ordered audits of tests conducted by the Virginia Crime Laboratory.
But Washington’s attorneys would like to see more reform. “It’s a wake-up call,” Cornwall said. “Not only that innocent people can be put on death row, but that it doesn’t happen by accident. It is critical to monitor interrogations by videotaping them. It is critical for there to be independent oversight of the crime laboratories to make sure they are getting their work right in the first place, and to scrutinize these capital cases so that there are no more Earl Washingtons.”
Garrett used the trial to frame his Post-Convictions Remedies course this semester. The class read transcripts from Washington’s original criminal trial, studied Washington’s state and federal appeals and created their own arguments on the issues, and followed step by step through the civil wrongful conviction trial. Several students attended portions of the civil trial in Charlottesville.
“These are grave life-and-death questions and deep questions about responsibility for the state,” Garrett said. “It’s important for students to be part of a case where they can really examine how it was that an innocent person was on death row in Virginia and came within nine days of execution,” Garrett said.
Cornwall was sitting next to Washington when the verdict was read. “He was thrilled,” she said. “It was wonderful for Earl to know that he had local students helping him and supporting him in the court room.”
• Reported by emily williams