Richmond Times-Dispatch, January 3, 2016

Law school symposium to focus on former death row inmate

Posted: Sunday, January 3, 2016 10:30 pm

Joseph M. Giarratano, one of the best known and most polarizing prison inmates in modern Virginia history, will serve as the vehicle for a two-day legal discussion next month.

The Lara D. Gass Symposium at the Washington and Lee University School of Law, on Feb. 5-6, will highlight Giarratano’s case to “explore the ethical, legal and public policy issues surrounding the use of the death penalty.”

Giarratano, 58, was convicted of the 1979 murder of a Norfolk woman and the rape and capital murder of her 15-year-old daughter. His death sentence was commuted to life by then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder in 1991 after winning national and international attention from celebrities, liberal and conservative commentators, religious and political figures and others who raised questions about his guilt.

Then-Virginia Attorney General Mary Sue Terry denied a new trial for Giarratano. The former scallop boat crewman said that he awoke in a drug-induced stupor inside the apartment where the slayings occurred. He fled to Florida where he turned himself in.

Giarratano made several conflicting confessions to police. He later said he did not remember what happened, but that he does not believe he killed the women.

Over the years, Giarratano made a name for himself as a jailhouse lawyer with an essay published in the Yale Law Review. He was instrumental in getting legal help for fellow death row inmate Earl Washington Jr., who came within days of execution but was exonerated by DNA years later — the only Virginia death row inmate proven innocent.

According to organizers, “Giarratano’s case raises several issues that the symposium panelists will discuss at length, including ineffective assistance of counsel, clemency, post-conviction relief, actual innocence, prison conditions, race and gender and the use of the death penalty on those with mental illness or intellectual disability.”

Panels on Feb. 5 include: rights and remedies available when a death row inmate’s lawyer did not perform up to constitutionally acceptable standards; capital punishment and actual innocence; and life on death row. The keynote speaker at an invitation-only dinner that evening is Mike Farrell, an actor, longtime Giarratano supporter and death penalty activist.

Feb. 6 panels include: executive powers over sentencing; death penalty advocacy; race and gender’s impact in capital sentencing; and the use of capital punishment on people with mental illness or intellectual disability.

Speakers include Gerald T. Zerkin, one of Giarratano’s lawyers; Barry Weinstein and Eric M. Freedman, who helped represent Earl Washington; Deidre Enright with the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law; Mattew Engle with Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty; Brandon Garrett with the University of Virginia School of Law; David Bruck, a professor and director of the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse at the Washington and Lee School of Law; Stephen Northup, a Richmond lawyer; Richard Bonnie, professor of medicine and law at the University of Virginia School of law; and Jonathan Shapiro, visiting professor at the Washington and Lee School of Law.

Ten years after the crimes, Giarratano’s lawyers said he was not competent to stand trial because drug abuse, mental illness and a death wish left him unable to assist in his own defense. They also said new evidence supports Giarratano’s innocence and explains the faulty confessions.

Wilder’s conditional pardon spared him from the electric chair and left him eligible for parole after serving 25 years. The former governor left it up to Mary Sue Terry, then Virginia attorney general, to decide whether Giarratano should be retried — something legal experts question was possible in light of the separation of powers.

In any case, soon after Giarratano signed the conditional pardon, Terry refused his plea for a new trial. “The facts of the matter are 12 years ago this month, a 15-year-old child was raped and murdered, and her mother was murdered,” Terry said at the time. “I don’t think Mr. Giarratano has a legal right to a new trial, nor do I think he deserves a new trial.”

Giarratano, who has an escape attempt history, was transferred to prisons in Utah and Illinois before coming back to Virginia where he was sent to Red Onion, one of the state’s two “supermaximum” security prisons. He is now an inmate at the Deerfield Correctional Center, where many of the state’s elderly and infirm inmates are confined.

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