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Former death-row inmate, once jailed in Utah, granted parole

FILE - In this 1991 file photo, Joseph M. Giarratano, who was stabbed on July 4, 1996, at Buckingham Correctional Center, speaks with members of the media in Buckingham, Va. Giarratano, who had his sentence commuted to life in prison more than two decades ago, has been granted parole. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports the Virginia State Parole Board on Monday, Nov. 20, 2017, approved Giarratano for release. (Lindy Keast Rodman/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A Virginia death row inmate who came within two days of being executed before his sentence was commuted decades ago amid questions about his guilt was granted parole.

The Virginia State Parole Board on Monday approved Joseph Giarratano's release, The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported . Giarratano, now 60, was convicted of the 1979 rape and capital murder of 15-year-old Michelle Kline and the murder of her mother, 44-year-old Toni Kline, in Norfolk.

A part-time fisherman, Giarratano had been living with the Klines. He initially confessed but later said he woke up in the apartment to find the bodies and didn't remember what happened. During his decades in prison, he's become a prominent jailhouse attorney and polarizing figure.

In 1991, two days before Giarratano was scheduled to die in the electric chair, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder commuted his sentence.

Wilder said at the time that the widespread support for Giarratano did not influence his decision. The case had garnered national and international attention from celebrities, liberal and conservative commentators, religious and political figures, and others who raised questions about his guilt, the newspaper reported.

The parole board's decision is not a comment on an inmate's innocence claim, nor is it "an act of forgiveness," chairwoman Adrianne Bennett said.

Members of the victims' family couldn't be reached by the newspaper for comment. The prosecutor in the case and the judge who found him guilty are deceased.

Attorney Stephen Northup, who represented Giarratano before the parole board, said: "For all the reasons that caused Gov. Wilder to give Joe a conditional pardon more than 26 years ago, I believe Joe is innocent of the crimes for which he was convicted."

According to the Times-Dispatch, Giarratano has kept a relatively low profile behind bars in recent years. He has lost a leg to diabetes and is an inmate at the Deerfield Correctional Center in Capron, where many aging and ill inmates are held.

But that wasn't always the case.

In 1984, Giarratano assisted in the escape of six death row inmates but didn't flee, according to the newspaper. He was stabbed by another inmate and sent to a prison in Utah in 1996 for his own safety.

He has been published in The Yale Law Journal and helped get legal representation for Earl Washington Jr., an inmate who came close to being executed for a rape and murder that years later DNA proved was committed by someone else.

Northup said his client had compiled a "remarkable record" during his nearly 40 years in prison.

"His release will pose no risk to public safety and will enable the outside world to benefit from his extraordinary skills and intelligence," Northup said.

It may take a month before Giarratano is freed, according to Bennett, the parole board chairwoman.

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Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.richmond.com

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