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Symposium at Washington and Lee University School of Law Focused on Death Row Inmate
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Joseph Giarratano

Summary: Washington and Lee University School of Law’s Lara D. Gass Symposium will focus its discussion for two days on the case of Joseph M. Giarratano.

The Lara D. Gass Symposum held February 5 and 6 at Washington and Lee University School of Law will examine several issues raised by the case of former Virginia death row inmate Joseph M. Giarratano. His case has repeatedly been used as an example of ethical, legal, and public policy matters in Virginia history.


Giarrantano was convicted in 1979 of the murder of a Norfolk woman and the rape and capital murder of her 15-year-old daughter. In 1991, his death sentence was commuted to life by Governor at the time, L. Douglas Wilder. He had gathered sympathy from celebrities, religious and political figures, liberal and conservative commentators, and more.

At the time of his conviction, Attorney General Mary Sue Terry would not grant him a new trial since the evidence seemed strong. Giarratano awoke in the apartment where the women were killed and then fled to Florida, claiming he did not remember anything due to drugs. He made several confessions to police; all conflicting, eventually admitting he did not remember anything that happened that night expect he believed he did not kill them.

While in jail, he acted as a jailhouse lawyer, publishing an article in the Yale Law Review. He helped fellow death row inmate Earl Washington Jr. receive a stay just days before he was set to be executed to later be exonerated by DNA evidence. Washington is the only Virginia death row inmate to be proven innocent.

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The organizers of the symposium said, “Giarratano’s case raises several issues that the symposium panelists will discuss at length, including ineffective assistance of counsel, clemency, post-conviction relief, actual innocence, prison conditions, race and gender and the use of the death penalty on those with mental illness or intellectual disability.”

Lawyers for Giarratano are now fighting his conviction, stating he is not competent to stand trial because of drug abuse, mental illness, and a death wish left him unable to assist in his own defense. His conditional pardon by Wilder saved him from the electric chair and eligible for parole but left it up to Terry to determine if he should be retried.

Giarratano has attempted to escape prison on multiple times, being sent to prisons in Utah and Illinois before being sent back to Virginia. He is now at Deerfield Correctional Center where the elderly and infirm inmates are often sent.





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