Virginia

Virginia

Representation Improves, Death Sentences Dramatically Drop in Virginia

The number of people sentenced to death in Virginia has plummeted from 40 in the years 1998-2005 to only 6 from 2006 through April 2015. A recent study suggests that improvements in capital representation in the state may have played a significant role in that dramatic change. In 2004, Virginia established four regional capital defender offices, which are completely devoted to handling death penalty cases. The year before the defender offices opened, Virginia juries imposed 6 death sentences, but have not imposed more than 2 in any year since.  This mirrors the experience in other jurisdictions in which defendants have been represented by institutional capital defenders. In addition to better outcomes at trial, "[a] capable and vigorous defense no doubt accounts — at least in part — for the increased willingness of prosecutors to resolve capital cases short of death," University of Virginia law professor John G. Douglass said in his study.

NEW VOICES: Effects of the Death Penalty on Those Who Carry It Out

Four retired death-row prison officials - two wardens, a chaplain, and an execution supervisor - recently described the effect that carrying out executions has had on them. Frank Thompson (pictured), who served as a warden in Oregon and Arkansas, said he believed in capital punishment until he thought "about those flaws in the back of my mind that I knew existed with capital punishment. It’s being administered against the poor; it lacks proof that it deters anything." He trained his staff to carry out executions, but, "I realized that I was training decent men and women how to take the life of a human being. In the name of a public policy that after all these years couldn’t be shown to increase the net of public safety." Terry Collins spent over 32 years working in corrections, including time as the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. He said seeing exonerations gave him concerns about the death penalty: "[T]the system does make mistakes. I don’t think you can make a mistake when you’re talking about somebody’s life." Jerry Givens, who oversaw 62 executions in Virginia, raised similar concerns, "I knew the system was corrupted when we exonerated Earl Washington Jr. from death row...You have two types of people on death row. The guilty and the innocent. And when when you have the guilty and the innocent, you shouldn’t have death row." Rev. Carroll Pickett was a chaplain on Texas's death row for 15 years and during 95 executions. He commented, "Standing by the gurney almost 100 times, and watching innocent men killed, watching repentant men killed, and seeing the pain among families and men and my employee friends, cannot leave my memories."

NEW VOICES: After 36 Executions, Former Virginia Attorney General Now Opposes Death Penalty

During his tenure as Attorney General of Virginia from 1998 to 2001, that state executed 36 people. Now Mark Earley opposes the death penalty. The former Attorney General recently discussed his change of opinion in an article for the University of Richmond Law Review. He wrote, “If you believe that the government always ‘gets it right,’ never makes serious mistakes, and is never tainted with corruption, then you can be comfortable supporting the death penalty.” He said, "Overseeing a legal system that put so many to death with such efficiency eroded me," but political concerns he had as Attorney General "walled off my doubts." Since leaving office, Early said he has "come to the conclusion that the death penalty is based on a false utopian premise. That false premise is that we have had, do have, and will have 100% accuracy in death penalty convictions and executions." He highlights two cases that raised significant concerns for him: the exoneration of Earl Washington, which took place during Earley's tenure as Attorney General, and the recent ruling vacating the conviction of George Stinney, who was executed in South Carolina in 1944 at the age of 14. Earley concludes, "I can no longer support the imposition of a penalty so final in nature, yet so fraught with failures."

Recent Developments in Death Penalty Legislation

Several state legislatures have recently taken action on bills related to capital punishment. In Arkansas, a bill to abolish the death penalty passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a voice vote. Bill sponsor Sen. David Burnett, a former prosecutor and judge who both sought and imposed the death penalty, said, "It's no longer a deterrent. It's a punishment that's actually broken. It doesn't work. And it costs a huge amount of money to try and prosecute those cases." Arkansas last carried out an execution in 2005. A similar bill in Montana was approved by a House committee with bipartisan support, but failed on a tied vote (50-50) in the full House. Before the vote, repeal supporter Rep. Mitch Tropila said, “This is an historic moment in the Montana House of Representatives. It has never voted to abolish the death penalty on second reading. This is a momentous moment, and we are on the cusp of history." Montana's last execution took place in 2006. Virginia legislators rejected a bill to shield information related to lethal injection as state secrets. The House of Delegates voted 56-42 against the bill, which would have exempted “all information relating to the execution process,” including the source of execution drugs and the buildings and equipment used for executions, from open records laws. Del. Scott A. Surovell commented, "Anytime somebody in the government wants to restrict information about what the government is going to do, I think we need to ask some really difficult questions and get some straight answers before we grant them that right.”

NEW VOICES: Oliver North - Long-Time Opponent of the Death Penalty

Oliver North, a former Marine and noted conservative leader, has opposed the death penalty for many years. In a recent interview, he said, "I’m a 'law and order' guy. Don’t get me wrong. Individuals need to be held accountable...but I have always felt… and always said that there are very serious questions about the justice of the death penalty. Just a few months ago, a man (Glenn Ford) who was on death row for thirty years was found to be innocent." When North ran for U.S. Senate in Virginia in 1994, he took an anti-death penalty stance, but he said it did not hurt his campaign, adding, "I got the endorsement of every police organization in Virginia [when I ran] and they all knew exactly where I stood on that issue." North called for further discussion: "I still think it is the kind of thing that deserves an informed debate in our society and our culture. What is it about us that says that we have to affect that kind of retribution? Is it really a deterrent? It doesn’t seem to be."

NEW VOICES: Former Attorneys General Agree Virginia's Death Penalty Needs Change

Former Virginia attorneys general Mark L. Earley Sr. (pictured) and Anthony F. Troy recently called for changes to the state’s death penalty based on a September report from the American Bar Association. Writing in the Washington Post, the past law enforcement leaders called for changes to the restrictive laws governing the sharing of evidence prior to trials, amendments to jury instructions so that jurors in death cases could better understand their responsibilities, and the easing of restrictions on DNA testing. The op-ed noted, “As former attorneys general of Virginia, we come from different political parties but are firmly united on an issue important to all Virginians: If the commonwealth is going to have the death penalty, it needs to get it right. It must ensure that its procedures — from arrest to execution — are fair, and it must minimize the risk of executing an innocent person.” Read full op-ed below.

STUDIES: American Bar Association Releases Assessment of Virginia Death Penalty

On September 5, the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Due Process Review Project released its latest report, focusing on the fairness and accuracy of Virginia's death penalty system. The assessment recommended changes to the way the state handles defendants with mental retardation and severe mental illness. It also recommended requiring prosecutors to disclose additional information about testifying witnesses and allowing prosecutors to withdraw the death penalty even after charging a defendant with capital murder. The report was critical of the state's practice of setting an execution date before all appeals are complete because it "effectively provides less due process to those under a death sentence than that which is afforded to non-capital inmates." The report praised recent improvements in documenting police procedures for eyewitness identification and accreditation of crime laboratories, but recommended additional reforms. The assessment found the state to be not in compliance or only in partial compliance with many of the ABA's protocols for the death penalty. The assessment team included Mark Earley, the former Attorney General of Virginia, John Douglass (Chair), the Dean Emeritus of the University of Richmond Law School, and other leaders from the judicial and legislative communities.

BOOKS: "The Corruption of Innocence" - the Joseph O'Dell Story

A new book by Lori St John, The Corruption of Innocence: A Journey to Justice, recounts the author's quest to save the life of Joseph O’Dell because of her strong belief in his innocence. St John describes the resistance she experienced in trying to have crime-related items tested for DNA evidence, and the international support that O'Dell attracted while on death row. O'Dell was executed in Virginia in 1997. Among those who had expressed doubts about O'Dell's guilt were three Justices of the Supreme Court. Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, who attended O'Dell's execution, praised the book, “This amazing story of a woman's valiant attempts to save an innocent man from execution might seem like a hyped-up, overwrought suspense novel. But everything told in these pages actually happened. Fasten your seat belt. It's going to take you for quite a ride.”

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