On the wall behind Earl Washington Jr. is a precious memento. It is a large American flag given to his family when his father, a veteran, died in 1995.
Washington could not attend the funeral, nor that of his mother, Marie, who also died that year. He was in prison then. He was released last year after new DNA tests cleared him of a 1982 rape and capital murder and he completed his sentence for a 1983 assault.
The former Fauquier County farm hand was once held in a cell so close to the state's death chamber that he could hear the electric chair being tested.
He shows no bitterness about coming within days of execution and spending 9½ years on death row for a crime he did not commit.
There were times, he said, that he never dreamed he would have the kind of life he lives now. With nearly a year of freedom under his belt after 18 years behind steel bars and concrete, Washington is a happy, thriving man.
"Most people say I should have been angry, upset," Washington said, relaxing in his one-room Virginia Beach apartment. "Nah," he said, trying to cover his perpetual grin with a hand. "That's just not me. Being upset can get you in trouble."
He is the first and only Virginia death row resident cleared of capital murder. Then-Gov. Jim Gilmore issued him an unconditional pardon after the DNA tests failed to find Washington's DNA but did find the DNA of a convicted rapist now in prison on other charges.
In spite of that, there are some in state government and in Culpeper, where the rape and murder occurred, who believe the tests did not clear Washington.
Gilmore's secretary of public safety, Gary K. Aronhalt, has said that simply because Washington's DNA was not present at the crime scene did not "clear" him of the crime. Culpeper Commonwealth's At- torney Gary Close said he believes the tests do not clear Washington, who he thinks is guilty.
Serious for a moment, Washington said there may be those who think he will not make it on the outside, that he will take a drink or turn to crime. He was drunk one night in 1983, the night he struck an elderly woman with a chair and shot his brother in the foot with a stolen handgun.
Since he's been out he has not had a drink, nor does he want one, he said. He knows that is why he broke the law. "Prison ain't a good place to be," Washington said.
On Feb. 12, 2001, Washington was driven out of the Greensville Correctional Center, in Jarratt, to the offices of Support Services of Virginia Inc. in Virginia Beach, which provides services to mentally retarded and mentally ill clients. With an IQ of 68, Washington is mildly retarded.
There have been changes since his release. He sports a beard now, his hair is a bit longer and he wears wire-rimmed spectacles. "I'm a little near-sighted," he said. He's also put a few pounds on his once wiry, 6-foot-1-inch frame.
There's another big change in his life, too: Pam Edwards, another Support Services client, to whom Washington is engaged. The two live together in Washington's apartment and plan a May 4 wedding - the day after Washington turns 42. Their honeymoon night will be spent at a seaside motel, he said.
Edwards said it was Washington's charm and sense of humor that attracted her. She is not nervous about the wedding. She has been married before and has a daughter, Chivon Majette, 21, who lives in Suffolk.
Washington attends services at the First Presbyterian Church in Norfolk, is studying for his GED and hopes to get a driver's license.
The most difficult thing about freedom?
"The high cost of living," he said.
Kay Mirick, president of Support Services, said Washington "is doing wonderfully. He has a full-time job with us. He's one of my property managers." Her employees all make at least minimum wage, she said. "He's pretty normal," Mirick said. "He's an incredible man."
Support Services is funded through the local community services board, Medicaid and other sources, said Mirick.
Washington said that his job is one of the nicest things about being free - that, and "doing what I want to do." He said he works five days a week. "I stay home on Saturdays, go to church on Sundays," he said.
He also likes the food on the outside.
Steak and fried chicken are two of his favorites meals. Some days, he said, he has eaten steak for breakfast, lunch and dinner. "I do most of the cooking in the house. It's nice to be able to cook what you want to eat," he said.
Washington has a television and VCR in his apartment along with a CD player and large speakers. He likes country music, Edwards said. He also has a telephone and frequently calls his sister and brothers in the Culpeper area.
"I guess the hardest part of being here is missing my family," he said.
Since he was freed, he has been back to the Culpeper area only once - to visit his parents' graves. It was a sad journey, but he said it also made him nervous. He could not explain why. His sister came to visit him in Virginia Beach a few times, but now she has car trouble and can't make the trip, he said.
Asked whether he believes the state of Virginia owes him anything for nearly executing him, Washington said he was not going to comment. Robert T. Hall, one of his lawyers, said that given the state budget problems this year, no claim will be filed with the General Assembly on Washington's behalf.
Washington is looking forward to Feb. 12, when he will be visited by reporters.
He remembers clearly the day he got out of prison. He was congratulated by his many lawyers and others who worked to free him. Then he faced dozens of reporters and nearly as many television cameras at a news conference.
"It was like a dream to me," a good dream, he said.
Contact Frank Green at (804) 649-6340 or email@example.com