Voices: Joseph Giarratano


(Editor’s Note: The front page of this newsletter spells Joe Giarattano’s name incorrectly in the headline. We would correct it, but the computer program we use won’t allow corrections once the email is sent. We apologize for the error.)

“I am going to be faced with real challenges when I step beyond the prison gates. Life for me is not going to be easy. I am, essentially, beginning from scratch,” Joseph Giarratano wrote on his blog just a few weeks before he was paroled from the Virginia prison where he’d been incarcerated for 38 years. “Though I am excited about this next leg of my journey, that excitement is mixed with a heavy dose of trepidation.”

Not the usual reflection you might expect from a man who has spent the majority of his life behind bars. But Giarratano is a very unusual man. He “literally grew up in a criminal family. My mother ran a drug operation on the East Coast, and supplied me from early on with any kind of drug you can think of.” He was a drug smuggler and a cook on a scallop boat before being arrested for the rape and murder of 15-year-old Michelle Kline, and the murder of her mother, 44-year-old Barbara (“Toni”) Kline, who were his roommates, in Virginia in 1979. While he had no memory of the murders — he woke up from a drug and alcohol-induced stupor to find their bodies — he fled the scene before turning himself in a day later in Florida. He subsequently confessed five times, and after a half-day trial, was sentenced to death in 1979.

In prison, awaiting execution, he immersed himself in law books, and soon became a death-row lawyer, filing appeals for himself and others, including a challenge to a Virginia law that ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I’m an accidental legal scholar due to my brain damage,” Giarratano says. “I can’t do simple math, but give me Supreme Court decisions, philosophy books, Nietzsche’s writings, and I’m completely comfortable.” He says his brain damage was discovered when he was given tests in prison, and he believes the damage was the result of childhood beatings, and drugs.

Giarratano says he began reading law books at the urging of Marie Deans, the legendary mitigation specialist and prisoner advocate. She had gone to Virginia at the request of the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons, and spent 10 years working with the men on Virginia’s death row, trying to find them lawyers, providing them emotional support and acting as their advocate. (In his biography of Deans, A Courageous Fool, Todd Peppers writes that she was “the only friend, the only lifeline to the outside world these men had,” and that by the time she left, she had accompanied 34 men to the Virginia death house. Giarratano wrote the book’s foreword.)

One of the cases Giarratano worked on was Earl Washington Jr’s, who at the age of 22, and with an IQ of 69, was wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of 19-year-old Rebecca Lynn Williams and sentenced to death. Unable to read or write, Washington had approached Giarratano in the day room and asked him to read a letter he had just received. It was from the attorney general, notifying him that if he didn’t file a habeas corpus petition within two weeks, he would be scheduled for execution.

Giarratano and Deans worked feverishly to find Washington an attorney, finally getting him representation and a stay of execution nine days before he was scheduled to be killed. After Giarratano suggested to Washington’s lawyers that his case was perfect for a challenge to the Virginia law that held that condemned prisoners had no constitutional right to counsel in a habeas petition, they agreed, and the challenge made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. While the Court ultimately found against Washington, in a 5-4 decision, the challenge did result in the Commonwealth of Virginia changing its law to grant the right to counsel for a habeas appeal. (In 1994, then-Governor L. Douglas Wilder commuted Washington’s death sentence to life with parole. Six years later, then-Governor Jim Gilmore granted him “absolute pardon;” and he was released in 2001. And in 2007, then-Governor Tim Kaine granted “amended absolute pardon,” declaring “actual innocence.”)

During those years, Giarratano never stopped fighting for himself. He had garnered much high-level support from attorneys, celebrities, corrections officials, at least one warden, and citizens from all over the world. There were 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.

“There is not a shred of significant or credible physical evidence supporting the conclusion that Joseph Giarratano’s contradictory and inconsistent confessions are reliable or link him to the deaths of Toni [Barbara] and Michelle Kline. Yet there is considerable evidence supporting the conclusion that his confessions are false. Joseph Giarratano is in all likelihood an innocent man who was wrongfully convicted of a capital crime,” the Criminal Law Bulletin wrote in 2001.

In 1991, Gov. Wilder commuted his sentence to life, two days before he was scheduled to be executed. That made him eligible for parole after serving 25 years, and in December 2017, Giarratano was released from prison, 38 years after he was sent to death row at the age of 23. But he was released for time served, not exonerated, which means he is on parole, still under the eye of the Virginia Department of Corrections, and, worst of all, has to register as a sex offender every 90 days. Because of that designation, he was barred from using a computer, accessing the internet, and having any contact with convicted felons. These conditions were crushing obstacles because upon his release, Giarratano was hired as a paralegal by one of the attorneys who had represented him for years, and by the University of Virginia School of Law Innocence Project.

“My livelihood depends on access to a computer because that’s the only way I can do the research I need to do. And all of my clients are convicted felons,” Giarratano says. “How can you work for the Innocence Project and not be in contact with convicted felons?”

The situation came to a head in October when Giarratano, who was also required to attend group sex offender therapy for pedophiles, was kicked out of the group for not participating in his own therapy, and was then arrested for violating the terms of his parole. After 20 days in jail, he was finally released and, after finding that Giarratano was not nor had ever been a pedophile, and should not have been ordered to participate in group therapy, the parole board lifted most of the restrictions, although, “Under state law I have to register as a sex offender because a lone judge, after a four-hour capital murder trial, found me guilty of rape based solely on one of the five conflicting confessions.”

Still, Giarratano is happy. He describes this past year as a “whirlwind.” He met his wife, Denise, at a winter solstice party the day after he got out of prison. “There were 200 people there. We were burning yule logs. There was fiddle playing, singing, poetry reciting. A woman came over and introduced herself. She was a friend of the people I was staying with, and we became friends.” They were married in September.

He loves his two jobs, both of which are within walking distance, which he does regularly in spite of losing a leg when he was in prison because of deep vein thrombosis, and poor prison medical care, and he enjoys living in Charlottesville.

“I have a good life. Good friends,” he says.


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