Book on Shenandoah Murders Highlights Work of Innocence Project at UVA Law
When author Kathryn Miles first set out to write “Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders,” she thought the tragic story she would be telling was the unsolved mystery of two young women mysteriously murdered in Shenandoah National Park. It hadn’t yet occurred to her that she would also capture the tragedy befalling the man suspected of those murders for 25 years.
Professor Deirdre Enright ’92, the founder of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law and the director of a new clinic, the Project for Informed Reform, has spent most of her career defending the man, Darrell David Rice, who was pursued by both federal and state prosecutors over the course of two indictments. And a third is always possible. Enright is confident enough in her client’s innocence that when Miles asked her to share her files, Enright gladly walked her through the entire case one more time.
“My experience of the people who usually write about these particular murders is that they always want the 12-second version, and I don’t work with people who aren’t serious,” Enright said. “She had read every paper in the court file. I thought, ‘OK, she really is going to write a book and I should try to help.’”
“Trailed” was just tabbed as June’s book of the month by the Oxygen Channel’s book club and was reviewed by The New York Times in May.
Through the pages of “Trailed,” Miles unpacks the investigation of the murders of Julianne Williams and Laura “Lollie” Winans, from the moment their bodies were found just off the Bridle Trail near Luray in 1996 to the frantic efforts of Enright and her Innocence Project students to persuade the FBI to conduct further testing of male DNA found at the crime scene, or to allow Rice’s team to conduct their own testing.
Earlier DNA testing excluded Rice, but was described as “inconclusive” in excluding known serial killer Richard Marc Evonitz, who committed suicide just two months after Rice’s federal indictment. Rice had fallen under suspicion because he had attempted, but failed, to kidnap a cyclist on Skyline Drive about a year later.
Ultimately, Miles reaches the same conclusion as Enright: Rice was not in the national park the day of the murder, and Evonitz may have been. (Evonitz’s grandmother was dying at a hospital in Harrisonburg — 25 minutes from the park — at the time. He took leave from work to be with her, and he was not at the hospital when the murders occurred, according to Enright.)
Evonitz kidnapped and killed three teens in Spotsylvania County in the same era. He committed suicide in 2002 immediately after one of his victims escaped. Before he died, he called his sister and confessed to having committed more crimes than he could remember.
For Enright, the book highlights secondary and tertiary mysteries and tragedies. The prosecutors’ dogged refusal to do further DNA testing has shaken her belief that the law seeks to pursue truth and justice.
“After [Evonitz] left Virginia, he became a traveling salesman — he has lived and worked in 26 states,” Enright said. “There are going to be people in prison whose crimes he committed, and then there are going to be other unsolved murders. He didn’t just commit three murders.”
Miles, who holds a Ph.D. in science writing, was drawn to the Shenandoah mystery in part by her personal connection to one of the murder victims. She was a professor of environmental studies and writing at Maine’s Unity College from 2001 to 2015, where Winans was a student just before she embarked on her ill-fated hike with her partner, Williams.
“Having seen just how significant an impact [Winans] had on that community, and just how powerfully that community continued to grieve in the years and even decades after her death was something that was really influential for me,” Miles said.
But that is only one part of the story for her, she said.
“The other story is unpacking the way in which confirmation bias prevents investigators from getting to the truth of a case, and how that bias can ultimately lead to either wrongful convictions or a wrongheaded emphasis on an individual to the point that an investigation starts to move from prosecution to persecution,” Miles said.
Those biases are what ultimately drive the mission of the Innocence Project at UVA Law, which Enright launched in 2008 to exonerate the wrongfully convicted and win them compensation where appropriate.
That intersection of interests and passion turned Miles and Enright into natural collaborators and bosom buddies, even after an investigator in the Shenandoah case warned Miles that Enright might deliberately put her in danger by disclosing the author’s whereabouts and personal information to Rice.
“I eventually had a journalist-friend who does exoneration work vet her and what kept coming back is, ‘She’s one of the good guys,’” Miles said. “As soon as I met Deirdre, it was obvious to me that she is in fact the queen or the empress of the good guys.”
Miles was on the phone with Enright nearly every day for more than two years, and she relied heavily on Enright’s case files and the clinic students’ research assistance, she said.
“I really cannot stress enough how significant a contribution both the Innocence Project and UVA Law had on this,” Miles said. “It’s really only because of the generosity of people like Deirdre and schools like UVA Law that journalists like me get to do our work.”
Miles is also working on a Mother Jones story about another Innocence Project client, Trudy Munoz, who was deported after serving a full sentence for the death of a child in her day care.
Enright stepped down from the Innocence Project last summer to run a new criminal justice policy clinic she launched in January, and to join Professor Rachel Harmon as a director for the Center for Criminal Justice.
Enright is considering using the reform clinic to advocate for policies that would entitle victims’ families to DNA testing in cold cases such as the Shenandoah murders. In the meantime, she will continue to defend Rice for as long as it takes.
“I am still defending Darrell Rice because I know he didn’t do these things, and I know I can prove that. But because there was no trial, the government continues to insinuate to journalists, like Kate, that it was Rice. This isn’t just malicious and false as to Rice. It also deprives the victims’ families and friends of knowing — with DNA and forensic evidence — who murdered their loved ones. I cannot — I will not — stop until they do the right thing here,” Enright said.
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Media ContactMelissa Castro Wyatt