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Monday, September 18, 2006

Va. Inmate Indicted in Killing That Altered DNA Testing Law

This article appeared in the Washington Post on Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Va. Inmate Indicted in Killing That Altered DNA Testing Law

By Maria Glod; Page A01

A serial rapist has been indicted in the 1982 rape and murder of a young Culpeper, Va., mother, a crime that nearly led to the execution of an innocent man and helped bring about unprecedented reforms in Virginia's criminal justice system.
Kenneth M. Tinsley, 61, who is serving a life sentence for an unrelated rape, was charged this week with capital murder, rape and sodomy in the slaying of Rebecca Lynn Williams, 19.

The charges against Tinsley might finally clear Earl Washington Jr., whose case had emerged as one of the nation's most troubling instances of a wrongful conviction. A mildly mentally retarded farmworker, Washington had been convicted in the slaying and served 17 years in prison -- including 9 1/2 on death row -- before DNA tests exonerated him in 2000. At one point, he was days from execution.
"Finally the government has charged the man who really killed Rebecca," said Robert T. Hall, one of Washington's attorneys.
Washington's story, perhaps more than any in Virginia, has sparked reform in the state's justice system. His case inspired a 2001 law allowing inmates who claim innocence to seek DNA testing at any time, loosening what was then the toughest rule in the nation on new evidence. It also led to a review of some cases analyzed in Virginia's DNA laboratory.
Although Tinsley was first implicated as a suspect in 2000 when scientific tests showed that his DNA was on a blanket in the victim's apartment, the investigation continued for years. Albemarle County Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Richard E. Moore, appointed as special prosecutor in the case, said yesterday that a Culpeper County grand jury handed up the indictments Monday.
"After a lengthy and thorough review of the Virginia State Police investigation into the death of Rebecca Lynn Williams . . . including a full consideration of the results of recent DNA testing along with the original investigation, witnesses, evidence, and autopsy, I determined that it was appropriate and in the interest of justice to seek indictments against Kenneth Maurice Tinsley," Moore said in a statement. He declined to comment further.
Williams was stabbed 38 times on a June day while she was in her apartment with two of her young children. Before losing consciousness, she told her husband, who had arrived to find her collapsed on the front stoop, that she had been attacked by a black man with a beard.
Washington became a suspect after he broke into the home of an elderly neighbor and struck her with a chair. He pleaded guilty in that assault, but investigators also asked him about other crimes, including Williams's killing.
Washington, who has an IQ of 69, was convicted and sentenced to death largely based on a confession his attorneys say was coerced. They noted that he got key details wrong, describing Williams, who was white, as black and saying she was alone.
In 1994, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D) commuted Washington's sentence to life in prison after primitive DNA testing cast doubt on his guilt. In 2000, Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) pardoned Washington after more advanced genetic testing failed to connect him to the crime and revealed that DNA on the blanket in Williams's apartment was Tinsley's.
At the time, Gilmore's office said scientists determined that genetic material on Williams's body was not Tinsley's, leaving open the possibility that the DNA on the blanket was unconnected to the crime.
However, Washington's attorneys later obtained the genetic samples. A private laboratory in California concluded that Virginia scientists were mistaken and that the genetic material on Williams's body was Tinsley's.
Peter Neufeld, another of Washington's attorneys, said yesterday that as a result of the indictment, he will ask Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) to proclaim Washington's innocence.
"Governor Gilmore granted him a pardon on the grounds that a jury would have reasonable doubt," Neufeld said. "We are going to ask Governor Kaine to amend the pardon to change the reason to Earl Washington's actual, unequivocal innocence."
Kaine's spokesman, Kevin Hall, said the governor would consider any request. But he added: "This new indictment, while significant, is not a final determination of guilt."
Tinsley, who is being held at Sussex II State Prison, is serving time for the 1984 rape of a waitress in her Albemarle apartment.
But court records filed in connection with a civil lawsuit say Tinsley denied any involvement in Williams's rape and murder when he was questioned by investigators in 2000. Tinsley said "that if he had committed this crime he would tell the truth because he would want to free a fellow inmate."

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