Largely illiterate and with an IQ of 69, Washington confessed to the 1982 rape and slaying of Rebecca Lynn Williams even though no fingerprints or biological evidence tied him to the crime.
However, DNA tests showed he was wrongly convicted. He was moved off death row in 1994 after his sentence was commuted to life.
He was released from Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt early Monday and taken to Virginia Beach, where he had been assigned to live in an apartment building run by a support center for mentally disabled people, state officials said.
"He's here and he's a free man," said Andie Plumley, chief operations officer for the center, Support Services of Virginia, which is helping Washington make his transition to life outside prison. She said Washington met with friends during the morning.
Washington has six months of parole to serve on an unrelated assault conviction.
Washington, 40, came within nine days of being executed in the electric chair in 1985 but was granted a stay.
A 1993 DNA test cast doubt on his guilt and prompted then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat, to commute his sentence to life. Last fall, additional DNA tests found genetic material belonging to two other men, and Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore pardoned Washington.
"It made me happy," Washington said in an interview Friday. Gilmore "did a good job by my book."
The DNA test results, which have spared several other death row candidates nationally, have prompted Virginia legislators to rethink the death penalty. Since the penalty was reinstated in 1976, Virginia has executed 81 people, second only to Texas's 243 executions.
On Feb. 5 the Virginia Senate unanimously backed legislation that would wipe out the 21-day limit it places on condemned inmates to present new evidence of their innocence. The measure is before the House of Delegates.
A Senate committee stopped short of recommending suspension of executions pending a study of the policy.
Six states Illinois, Nebraska, Arizona, North Carolina, Maryland and Indiana have launched capital punishment studies looking at issues ranging from the quality of defense lawyers to the overall functioning of the death penalty, said Paula Bernstein of the Death Penalty Information Center.
In Illinois, Republican Gov. George Ryan imposed an indefinite moratorium on executions last year after several men were released from death row because they had been wrongly convicted or received unfair trials.
Virginia state Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, who sponsored the bill that would do away with Virginia's 21-day limit, said the legislation would afford more protections to inmates.
"Just because Earl Washington worked his way through the system, that doesn't mean that the system always works for somebody like Earl Washington," said Stolle, Republican.
Stolle's bill would require the storage of biological evidence used at trials so it could be recalled should scientific advances yield better DNA testing methods. The bill would also allow courts to order retesting, now done at the governor's prerogative. Inmates who claimed to have new evidence would be able to appeal directly to the state Supreme Court.
By Sonja Barisic
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