updated 5/5/2006 5:00:03 PM ET 2006-05-05T21:00:03

A federal jury on Friday ruled that a former state police investigator fabricated a confession that sent Earl Washington Jr. to death row for a rape and murder he didn’t commit. Washington came within nine days of being executed.

The five-woman, four-man panel awarded Washington $2.25 million in his lawsuit against the estate of Curtis Reese Wilmore, who died in 1994. It did so upon finding that Wilmore deliberately fabricated evidence against Washington, which resulted in Washington's conviction and death sentence.

“I feel great,” a smiling Washington said after the verdict.

A lawyer for the Wilmore estate, William G. Broaddus, declined to comment after the verdict but said he is considering appealing the ruling.

Washington’s lawyers claimed that Wilmore fed their client, who is mildly retarded, specific details that he used in his false confession to the slaying in 1982 of Rebecca Lynn Williams in Culpeper.

He was sentenced to death on the basis of the detailed confession and spent nearly 18 years in prison.

DNA testing linked another man
After DNA testing in 1993 cast doubt on Washington’s guilt, then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder commuted his sentence to life in prison. In 2000, more sophisticated DNA testing linked a convicted rapist to the crime and prompted then-Gov. Jim Gilmore to pardon Washington, now a maintenance worker in Virginia Beach.

U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon instructed the jurors that they could only award damages if they found that Wilmore fabricated evidence against Washington, deliberately did it, and in doing so caused Washington's conviction and death sentence.

During the trial, a psychologist testified that Washington’s mental deficit made him easily led during police investigations.

Washington’s lawyers said Washington’s confession included crime-scene details that he could have known only if someone else fed them to him. For example, Washington said he left a bloodstained shirt in a dresser drawer in a back bedroom of the victim's home. Police never revealed the information publicly.

Wilmore’s lawyers acknowledged Washington’s innocence, but argued that Wilmore didn't fabricate the confession.

The verdict came after nearly two weeks of testimony.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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