Margaret Edds, a journalist for The Virginian-Pilot, was drawn to the Earl Washington Jr. story when she began writing editorials against the death penalty. Washington, a mildly retarded man, was sent to death row for the 1982 rape and murder of a Culpeper woman. DNA evidence exonerated him in 2000, and Washington was awarded $2.25 million in a lawsuit against the estate of the detective who extracted a false confession. That money is currently stuck in appeals. Meanwhile, the suspected killer, serving time for another rape, awaits trail on the DNA evidence. Edds’ book, An Expendable Man, tells the story of how a nearly-invisible person from Virginia spent 17 and a half years in prison and became one of the worst examples of wrongful imprisonment and the errors of the death penalty system.
C-VILLE: How did you decide to write the book?
Margaret Edds: After talking with Washington’s attorneys, it seemed to me that there likely had been a miscarriage of justice. I began writing editorials urging then-Governor Jim Gilmore to reopen the case and to do new testing on the DNA.
How were the scales tipped against Washington?
He came from circumstances that were very difficult. He did not have a bright future, no matter what. But I think that’s one of the points of the book. There are certain people who live on the margins of society that can become almost expendable people when they confront the justice system. There’s just not a lot of value put on their life. But they are valuable, and society loses if they are allowed to become scapegoats. Had there not been a team of five attorneys who stuck with him for so many years and really came to feel personal affection for him, these things would never have been uncovered.
Have improvements been made to the system since Washington’s case?
Yes, there have been important changes in Virginia. [Previously] you had only 21 days after a conviction to bring forward new evidence of innocence. Now it is much easier. But there are other reforms that still need to be addressed. When you have very serious charges and crimes that could lead to death or life imprisonment, you need to have audiotaping or videotaping of the confessions and interrogations. If people could’ve gone back, questions could’ve been quickly answered. Instead it took two decades for the truth to come out.
How is Washington doing?
He seems to be doing well. He’s living in Virginia Beach working as a handyman through a program that [works] with mentally challenged adults. There is something in him that engendered this affection among the people who were working for him and is maybe one of the things that distinguished him from other expendable people.