Jun 16, 2001

No one charged in killing

DNA tests freed Earl Washington Jr.


It's the kind of DNA "cold hit" police and forensics experts dream about: A test placed a convicted rapist at the scene of a vicious, unsolved rape and murder that occurred nearly two decades earlier.

Better yet, Peter Neufeld, a lawyer for a man once wrongly convicted of that capital murder, says he has learned the rapist was free at the time of the 1982 slaying of Rebecca Williams, that he matched the description of her attacker and that he lived near her Culpeper apartment.

Also, the DNA tests showed the inmate's semen stain was on the same blue blanket as the victim's blood.

But some nine months after Paul B. Ferrara, head of the state's division of forensic science, notified Gov. Jim Gilmore about the results of his DNA testing, no one has been charged with the rape and murder for which Earl Washington Jr. was nearly executed in 1985.

Neufeld, of New York, co-founder of the Innocence Project with Barry Scheck, charges that Gilmore and police are dragging their feet out of reluctance to finally clear Washington, his client, who received a pardon from Gilmore last year as a result of Ferrara's tests.

In pardoning Washington, Gilmore said that, had a jury known of the test results, its verdict would have been different. He did not say the tests proved Washington innocent.

Lila White, spokeswoman for Gilmore, said Neufeld's assertion is nonsense.

"The governor has full faith in the state police and its investigative abilities, and I'm sure that when the state police feel that they have enough [evidence] to make an arrest in the . . . case, they will do so," said White.

A spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police said this week that the investigation into the capital murder is "ongoing" and, therefore, she could not comment further.

Authorities have refused to reveal the name of the inmate whose DNA was found on the same blanket as Williams' DNA.

Neufeld said an informed source told him the inmate was not incarcerated at the time of the slaying, that he lived in the vicinity of Williams and that he was a black man with a beard, matching the description Williams gave before she died of 38 stab wounds.

Culpeper Commonwealth's Attorney Gary Close says he has not met with state investigators about the case for about two months. He said Thursday that if he had a prosecutable case, he would proceed with it. "A case is not an easy thing to build," he said.

One of the apparent problems faced by authorities is other results of the DNA testing performed last year: The DNA found on a vaginal smear taken from the victim does match that of the man in prison. It also does not match Williams' widower, Clifford Williams, or Washington.

Neufeld concedes the DNA on the vaginal sample does not match the convicted rapist. However, he said, "there still is no legitimate explanation for the convicted rapist's semen on the blanket. Cases have been successfully prosecuted with much less - solely a cold hit on DNA."

"Here you also have the physical description," he said. "Old photos of the black man in prison show he had a beard and lived not too far from the deceased at the time of the murder."

"One of the real reasons here that they're not doing it is, it would actually force Gilmore and law enforcement in Culpeper to finally admit that they got the wrong guy. They haven't done that yet," Neufeld charges.

"They've never made that kind of admission. But once they arrest and prosecute somebody else, then they have to."

Meanwhile, Washington's longtime friend and lawyer Barry Weinstein said Washington is doing well.

He is living in an apartment in Virginia Beach with a roommate, has a job and is going to school part time to get his GED, Weinstein said.

Contact Frank Green at (804) 649-6340 or fgreen@timesdispatch.com

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