Joe Giarrantano’s Life Spared but Fight Continues for His Freedom

A False Confessions Case – By Steve Northup, a retired litigation partner in the Richmond office who served as our first Pro Bono Partner. He is an expert on False Confessions cases.

Steve Northup

Steve Northup

Did you know that a Troutman Sanders pro bono client was once the subject of an international effort to spare his life, with his case the focus of major news media coverage from around the world and the occasion for mass rallies on the grounds of the Virginia State Capitol? The client is Joe Giarratano. Our pro bono representation is currently led by Steve Northup, a retired partner in the Richmond office.

Mr. Giarratano’s case became a cause célèbre in the late 1980s. He had been convicted of a double murder and rape in Norfolk, VA in 1979, and was scheduled to die in Virginia’s electric chair. But a group of lawyers — including Tony Troy, a former Attorney General of Virginia and a partner at Troutman Sanders predecessor Mays & Valentine — became convinced of his innocence and embarked on a mission to save his life.

Mr. Giarratano had been convicted in a half day trial in which the only evidence of guilt was his confession. Ignored at the trial was significant evidence of innocence, including crime scene forensic evidence that excluded him because of his blood type (this was before the advent of DNA evidence) and inconsistencies between his initial confessions and the crime scene which were only “straightened out” when he was interrogated by Norfolk detectives familiar with the crime scene. Emphasizing the evidence of innocence, Mr. Giarratano’s lawyers filed a petition for clemency with Virginia’s Governor, L. Douglas Wilder. The clemency effort was joined by thousands of supporters and celebrities, including Mike Farrell (of M.A.S.H. fame) and conservative columnist James J. Kilpatrick.

Finally, on the eve of the scheduled execution, with supporters rallying on the grounds of Virginia’s Capitol and national and international news media shining a spotlight on Virginia, Governor Wilder issued an order commuting Mr. Giarratano’s sentence to life with the possibility of parole and directing Virginia’s Attorney General to afford Mr. Giarratano a new trial to give him an opportunity to prove his innocence. Unfortunately, the Attorney General declined to do so and Mr. Giarratano was left to continue his prison sentence, which has now stretched to almost 36 years.

Mr. Giarratano has made good use of his time in prison. Having entered prison a drug-addled waterman with little formal education, during the 1980s he embarked on a program of self education, reading and studying any book he could get his hands on. He studied the law of habeas corpus and became Virginia’s best known and most effective jailhouse lawyer. By the time of his sentence commutation, he had helped a number of prisoners obtain review of their sentences and had published an article in the Yale Law Journal. One of the fellow death row inmates he helped — Earl Washington — was ultimately released from death row and exonerated because of his innocence. Mr. Washington’s supporters credit Mr. Giarratano with saving Mr. Washington’s life by calling attention to his innocence and need for legal counsel.

Troutman Sanders role in the legal effort to win Mr. Giarratano’s release has continued after the commutation of his death sentence. Led by Tony Troy and Steve Northup, and in collaboration with a number of other lawyers, including the DC office of Skadden Arps, these efforts have included litigation to locate the biological evidence from Mr. Giarratano’s case in order to submit it for DNA testing. Unfortunately, that initiative proved futile when it turned out that Virginia had either destroyed or lost the evidence. Other legal efforts in support of Mr. Giarratano have included representation before Virginia’s Parole Board and a second clemency petition to Virginia’s Governor requesting that his sentence be commuted to time served. “We will continue to represent Joe and will not rest until we have gotten him released from prison,” says Mr. Northup.

Editor’s Note: Joe Giarrantano’s life was spared in 1991 when the Governor of Virginia awarded partial clemency. Significantly, Mr. Giarrantano was given the opportunity for freedom. However, his request for a new trial was summarily refused by the Attorney General and the parole board steadfastly refuses to consider evidence of his innocence, having denied denied parole eight times. Mr. Giarrantano’s case was the subject of a two day symposium held in February 2016 at Washington & Lee Law School.

Excerpt from Issue #1, 2016 from


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