For Joe Giarratano, Virginia’s abolition of the death penalty was a personal victory. He was on Virginia’s death row for 38 years before being released in December 2017, and practically from the day he got out, he’d been working to get the death penalty abolished.
It was a victory that reverberated beyond the commonwealth and across the country, not only because it is the first Southern state to do so but also because it has carried out more executions than any other state in its history, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
“I was a little surprised, even though I knew the momentum was there,” he says. “But I didn’t expect it to be the first Southern state. I expected it to be the last.” And while he worked hard for this victory, it is bittersweet in some ways. “Even though I appreciate the legislators who voted for abolition, who now acknowlege the death penalty serves no legitimate purpose, that was the case 38 years ago. It’s true now, and it was true then.”
Giarratano’s case was a terrible miscarriage of justice. He was a scallop boat fisherman who smuggled drugs before being arrested for the rape and murder of 15-year-old Michelle Kline, and the murder of her mother, 44-year-old Barbara Kline, his roommates, in Virginia in 1979. While he had no memory of the murders, saying he woke up from a drug and alcohol-induced stupor to find their bodies, he fled the scene before turning himself in a few days later in Florida. He later confessed five times, and after a half-day trial, was sentenced to death.
There were so many holes in his case, from his inconsistent confessions, to the fact there was no DNA or physical evidence linking him to the murders, to the fact that Barbara Kline had been stabbed by someone who was right-handed, and Giarratano is left-handed. Encouraged by Marie Deans, the legendary mitigation specialist and prisoner advocate, Giarratano worked on his own legal defense, and eventually garnered much high-level support from attorneys, celebrities, corrections officials, at least one warden, and citizens from all over the world.
In 1991, two days before he was scheduled to be executed, his sentence was commuted to life, making him eligible for parole after serving 25 years, by Gov. L. Douglas Wilder. In December 2017, Giarratano was released from prison, 38 years after he was sent to death row. But he wasn’t pardoned because, he says, “If you’re exonerated, they have to pay you a lot of money.”
Those 38 years exacted a terrible physical and psychological toll. Poor medical care in prison resulted in the loss of his right leg, and during those 38 years, 38 prisoners were executed and “I knew almost all of them,” he says. “When I think about that it makes me angry.” When he was first released, he couldn’t sleep in his own bed because it was too soft. “I slept on the floor, I just couldn’t handle the softness of the bed.” And he still has PTSD. “I have problems with crowds, I tense up. But my way of dealing with it is to deal with it head on.” Now working in a law firm as a paralegal, he doesn’t shy away from visiting clients in prison, even though the noise and the clang of the metal doors closing behind him still make him tense. But he reminds himself that, “When I go into jails and prisons now, I’m on the other side,” he says.
Giarratano said he believes the most powerful argument against capital punishment is the very real risk of executing an innocent person. So his strategy was to call or, even better, buttonhole legislators in hallways to tell them about two wrongful convictions that resulted in death sentences: his own and Earl Washington, Jr.’s.
“I always got a good reception and a lot of it was because of Earl’s case,” he says. “A lot of the senators didn’t know his case. When they looked into it they were shocked.” Washington spent 17 years in prison, nine-and-a-half of them on Virginia’s death row, for the 1982 rape and murder of 19-year old Rebecca Lynn Williams. But Washington, who is intellectually disabled and couldn’t read or write, gave a false confession, getting the basic details of the murder wrong, including Williams’s race. Giarratano had become friends with Washington after Washington asked his help in reading a legal document he had received in the mail. A skilled jailhouse lawyer, Giarratano recognized the problems with Washington’s case and the urgency of his situation. He helped him get legal representation and assisted Washington’s lawyers with his appeal. Washington, who had come within nine days of being executed, was eventually exonerated based on DNA evidence, and released in 2001. A jury later awarded him $2.25 million and he settled for $1.9 million in 2006.
And Giarratano’s still fighting. Yes, Virginia has abolished its death penalty, but there are still serious problems with its criminal justice system. Chief among them, for Giarratano, is the fact there is no such thing as parole in VIrginia. A defendant serves the sentence he or she is given, with no possibility of release before the sentence is up. Giarratano intends to get that changed. “I’m going to be pounding on doors. Bring parole back. It’s about damn time. You can’t give up. You’ve got to keep pushing.”