On the cover of An Expendable Man: The Near Execution of Earl Washington, Jr., by Margaret Edds, Sister Helen Prejean commands, “Read this book.” I suggest you mind what the good sister says. You won’t be able to put the book down.
Here’s a man, Earl Washington, Jr., who was the progeny of generations affected by slavery, post-slavery Jim Crow, and Southern black discrimination. He’s severely mentally challenged with an IQ around 69; his mother was both malnourished and an alcoholic during her pregnancy with him, and his own childhood was spent in abject poverty, undernourishment, and life with inebriated parents.
As a young man, he was a common laborer, and sometimes found it hard to resist the bottle himself. He can barely read or write, and expressing himself in words is difficult.
So, when a brutal sexual assault and murder of a white woman takes place in small-town Virginia, who better to blame than Earl Washington, Jr? Who better to execute than an impoverished, mentally disabled black man? As the title suggests, from beginning to the end of his twenty-year ordeal, he was viewed by the system as “an expendable man.”
This book dramatizes so much that is egregious about the death penalty. First of all, no forensic evidence of any kind linked Washington to the slaying. But when he became involved in a break-in and subsequent fracas almost a year after the murder, he was brought in and questioned, a suddenly convenient suspect in a case that wasn’t being solved.
Secondly, the dark side of interrogations is clear. Local police, completely untutored in the psychological implications of mental retardation, didn’t understand – or didn’t care — that the more they harassed and browbeat Washington, the more apt he was to agree to anything to please them and make them stop. This happened in the early 1980s; no videotape exists of the hours-long interrogation, during which Washington supposedly confessed to just about every murder in Culpepper, Virginia’s recent past.
But when they took him to the crime scene to point out the apartment where the murder happened, he pointed to one at the opposite end of the complex. So many things pointed to his innocence. But, hey, a confession – that’s what a jury focused on, and the third leg of a terrible set-up for the death penalty was in place: Washington’s legal representation was woefully inadequate.
With all these strikes against him, it would appear that Washington would go the way of so many rail-roaded black men in the South before him: to the execution chamber. But here’s where the book surprises: Washington also seemed to attract some incredible luck, and some incredible people who were in the right place for him at the right time. These were his salvation; the legal system, with its flaws, failings, and often just plain injustice, was his hurdle to overcome.
Here’s one instance of the incredible good fortune Washington had: a fellow death row inmate – yes, an inmate – was so impressed by Washington’s innocence that he initiated a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Washington which got the legal ball rolling and attracted the attention of others who came to Washington’s defense. What follows is a sometimes complicated read on the maneuverings through the system. But whether or not you’re familiar with the ins and outs of legal pleas and clemency requests, it’s worth the read to feel the triumph and exoneration of a man you learn to love as you read this book.
Despite exoneration for Washington, the book leaves you with anger at the system, disgust with politicians who are too scared of their own positions to risk doing the right thing, and frustration with a public which won’t demand an end to a capital punishment system riddled with injustice.