Richmond Times-Dispatch

Joseph M. Giarratano, controversial former death row inmate, granted parole
By FRANK GREEN Richmond Times-Dispatch
November 20, 2017

After 38 years behind bars and a close brush with execution for a rape and double murder that supporters have long claimed he did not commit, Joseph M. Giarratano has been granted parole.

One of the best known and most controversial death row inmates in Virginia history, the former scallop boat crewman, jailhouse lawyer and well-traveled inmate was approved for release on Monday. Adrianne L. Bennett, chairwoman of the Virginia State Parole Board, said it may take a month before Giarratano is actually freed.

Giarratano was convicted of the Feb. 4, 1979, rape and capital murder of Michelle Kline, 15, and the murder of her mother, Toni Kline, 44, in Norfolk. After several confessions, he later said he had no recollection of what happened in their apartment. He said he woke, discovered the bodies, assumed he was guilty and fled.

In 1991, two days before Giarratano’s scheduled execution, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder commuted his sentence to life after the case won national and international attention from celebrities, liberal and conservative commentators, religious and political figures, and others who raised questions about his guilt.

His was apparently the only death sentence commuted to life in Virginia in modern times allowing for the possibility of parole.

Members of the victims’ family could not be reached for comment Monday evening. His prosecutor and the judge who found him guilty are deceased.

Bennett said the board cannot comment on communications with victims and victim family members. However, she said that, in general, the board does have the duty to use due diligence to obtain victim input.

She said the board’s decision — it would take at least four of the five votes to grant Giarratano parole — is not a comment on an inmate’s innocence claim.

“It’s also not an act of forgiveness,” Bennett said.

Richmond lawyer Stephen A. Northup, who represented Giarratano before the parole board, said, “For all the reasons that caused Governor Wilder to give Joe a conditional pardon more than 26 years ago, I believe Joe is innocent of the crimes for which he was convicted.

“In addition, he has served almost 40 years of his life in prison and has compiled a remarkable record during that time. His release will pose no risk to public safety and will enable the outside world to benefit from his extraordinary skills and intelligence,” Northup said.

Gerald Zerkin, Giarratano’s lawyer when Wilder commuted the death sentence, said Monday evening, “That is the most fantastic news. It is a tragedy that he has been kept in prison for all this time and it is just great for all of us that he will be getting out. It should have happened a long time ago.”

The murders were discovered on Feb. 5, 1979, when police found Toni Kline stabbed to death on the bathroom floor of her apartment. Michelle Kline, who had been sexually assaulted and strangled, was found in the bedroom.

At 3 a.m. on Feb. 6, 1979, Giarratano walked over to a deputy sheriff eating breakfast in a Jacksonville, Fla., bus station, surrendered and confessed to killing two women in Norfolk. He would confess four more times, though the confessions were not consistent and conflicted in parts with the crime scene evidence.

As a result of his confessions and some circumstantial evidence, Giarratano was convicted in May 1979 in a trial before Norfolk Circuit Judge Thomas R. McNamara. Giarratano was later sentenced to death.

A decade after the convictions, his lawyers said he had not been competent to stand trial because drug abuse, mental illness and a death wish left him unable to assist in his own defense. They said that his conflicting confessions were made up and that new evidence supported innocence.

Supporters, including Hollywood personalities, raised a cloud of doubt about his guilt.

Authorities strongly defended the capital murder conviction and death sentence, arguing that the confessions were made out of genuine remorse and that Giarratano had since changed his mind.

The conditional pardon spared his life and made him eligible for parole after serving 25 years. Wilder left it up to then-Attorney General Mary Sue Terry to decide whether he should be retried, which legal experts questioned was possible.

Possible or not, Terry wanted no part of it, saying at the time that she did not believe he had a right to a new trial and that he did not deserve one.

Giarratano has kept a relatively low profile behind bars in recent years, but that wasn’t always the case.

In decades past, he was a lightning rod for attention and a polarizing fixture on and off death row. He assisted in the 1984 escape of six death row inmates, though he did not flee, and is a skilled jailhouse lawyer with one of his cases — about the right of prisoners for court-appointed lawyers on appeals — argued in the U.S. Supreme Court.

He was credited with helping save the life of Earl Washington Jr., Virginia’s only death row inmate proved wrongly convicted. Giarratano helped get legal representation for Washington, who came close to being executed for a rape and murder that years later DNA proved was committed by someone else.

Giarratano’s supporters included actors Roy Scheider, who appeared in the movies “Jaws” and “Russia House,” and Mike Farrell of television’s “M.A.S.H.,” who appeared at a Charlottesville rally on his behalf in 1991, a month before Giarratano was scheduled to be executed and Wilder commuted his sentence.

In a 2001 article in The Criminal Law Bulletin, the authors concluded: “In sum, there is not a shred of significant or credible physical evidence supporting the conclusion that Joseph Giarratano’s contradictory and inconsistent confessions are reliable or link him to the deaths of Toni and Michelle Kline. Yet there is considerable evidence supporting the conclusion that his confessions are false.”

Detractors argue Giarratano was a “poster boy” for anti-death penalty activists who twisted facts to suggest the guilty killer was innocent. He was derisively dubbed “Gentle Joe” in an often-cited editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Lawrence C. Lawless, who prosecuted Giarratano, said in 1989 that while he was no fan of the death penalty, in Giarratano’s case he was willing to pull the switch.

Moved off death row, Giarratano remained a thorn in the side of the Virginia Department of Corrections.

One of the last inmates to be held at the decrepit Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond before it was razed, he was sent to Augusta Correctional Center. With the help of former Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy, the founder of the Center for Teaching Peace, Giarratano set up a peace education program for other inmates.

His imprisonment has included cross-country flights in then-Gov. George Allen’s jet, a hunger strike, long periods in isolation and an essay published in the Yale law review.

He was also stabbed by another inmate — he said because corrections officials wrongly labeled him a snitch — and was sent to a prison in Utah in 1996 for his own safety under the terms of an interstate compact among correctional systems across the country.

His reputation preceded him. Upon his arrival, The Salt Lake Tribune wrote: “Virginia prisoner Joseph Giarratano was halfway through a cigarette when 15 guards unexpectedly appeared in his cell to escort him to the governor’s personal jet.

“The aircraft delivered one of the nation’s most articulate prison critics and effective litigators to Utah on Sept. 4 as a part of a prisoner exchange officials here may regret.”

Regret they did and he was soon transferred from Utah to Illinois, where he was held in the Joliet Correctional Center, best known as the home of “Joliet Jake” of cinema’s fictional Blues Brothers.

He was sent back to Virginia in 1997. In 2002, after state law was changed allowing inmates to request DNA testing, Giarratano’s lawyers sought vaginal and cervical swabs and slides and any other biological evidence from the crime scene that could be tested.

But authorities said none remained for testing since none was ever entered into evidence. The Norfolk police said they routinely destroy such evidence three years after a case has closed.

Two years ago, Giarratano’s case was a vehicle for a two-day legal discussion at the Washington and Lee University School of Law, to “explore the ethical, legal and public policy issues surrounding the use of the death penalty.”

In recent years, Giarratano lost a leg to diabetes and is now an inmate at the Deerfield Correctional Center in Capron, where many aged and ill inmates are held.

He has a blog,, in which, among other things, he took the Department of Corrections to task for allegedly failing to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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