BY FRANK GREEN
Gov. Jim Gilmore is considering a request for a DNA test that lawyers for former death row inmate Earl Washington Jr. say could conclusively prove their client innocent of a 1982 rape and, therefore, the murder of a Culpeper woman.
Washington had his death sentence commuted to life in prison in January 1994 in one of the last acts of Gov. L. Douglas Wilder. Wilder acted in light of a DNA test that suggested -- but did not prove -- Washington did not rape the 19-year-old woman.
Before she died, the victim, Rebecca Lynn Williams, who was raped and stabbed 38 times, was able to tell authorities she was attacked by one man.
The earlier DNA test on a vaginal swab showed that either the victim had sex with both Washington and another man besides her husband within hours of her death, or the genetic material was left by someone other than Washington.
Since then, Washington's lawyers have learned of another slide of vaginal fluid that has not been subjected to DNA testing. A more sophisticated test that was not available in 1994 could now prove Washington did not rape the woman, say Robert T. Hall and Gerald Zerkin, two of Washington's lawyers.
Hall said the request was made last December. "We're in April and no one seems to know anything," said Hall yesterday. "Why not test it?"
Lila E. Young, deputy press secretary for Gilmore, said yesterday, "That test has not been performed yet. The governor has not decided yet whether the tests are going to be performed." She said she could not elaborate.
Culpeper Commonwealth's Attorney Gary Close could not be reached for comment yesterday. Washington was prosecuted by Close's predecessor, John Bennett.
The DNA test that won Washington a commuted death sentence found three genetic markers, called alleles. The alleles were identified as 1.1, 1.2 and 4, he said. The "4" could have come from Washington, the victim or her husband, the test showed.
The earlier test "couldn't rule out Earl because he was a 1.2 [and] 4," said Hall. Washington did not have a 1.1 allele. If it could be proved the 1.1 and the 1.2 alleles were paired together and from the same person, it would clear Washington.
A test that could prove such a pairing, so-called short tandem repeater (STR) technology, can "tell us what the 1.1 is paired with," Hall said.
The tests on semen stains on a blanket at the crime scene were all 1.1 and 1.2 pairs and, therefore, likely belonged to the real rapist.
Washington, who is mildly retarded, confessed to the crime, and to some other assaults as well -- confessions his lawyers contend were the result of his trying to please his police interrogators.
Wilder, in commuting the death sentence but not pardoning Washington, said that Washington's confessions revealed information about the crimes that only the killer could have known.
Washington also was given two 15-year sentences for burglary and hitting a woman with a chair in a 1983 incident in which he also shot his brother in the foot. It was when Washington was arrested for those crimes that he confessed to the rape and slaying of Rebecca Williams.
Nevertheless, the results of the first DNA tests were strong enough to prompt then-Attorney General Stephen D. Rosenthal to say that Washington could be innocent, and Rosenthal suggested Wilder's power of clemency was the remedy to be pursued.
© 2000, Richmond Newspapers Inc.
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