In February 1979 in Norfolk Virginia, Joseph Giarratano awoke to discover the bodies of two women with whom he shared an appartment. Michelle Kline had been strangled in her bed, and her mother Toni Kline, was in the bathroom, her carotid artery severed.
Giarratano, who had no memory of the night before, fled to his home state of Florida, and as soon as he arrived, turned himself in and confessed. He was 21, a suicidal alcoholic who suffered frequent delusions, hallucinations and blackouts.
The state’s psychiatrist warned that he had no actual memory of the night, and the confession could have been the product of mental disorder.
Even though his multiple confessions were confused and contradictory, both internally and with the forensic evidence, after proclaiming his own guilt, waiving his right to a jury trial, and asking to be executed, he was convicted of murder and sent to death row.
After trial a forensic expert said Toni Kline was stabbed from behind by a right-handed person, whereas Giarratano is left-handed and handicapped by a severe neurological weakness on his right side.
There was other exculpatory forensic evidence not submitted at trial : numerous unidentified fingerprints and nine hair samples that did not belong to Giarratano or the victims.
While in prison Giarratano advocated for Earl Washington Jr., who was later exonerated and given a full pardon.
In 1991, on execution day, under intense pressure from both conservatives and liberals, Governor L. Douglas Wilde commuted Giarratano’s death sentence, to life in prison, with parole possible after 25 years.
All appeals have been denied for procedural reasons, and Joseph remains in prison.