Virginia

Virginia

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.”

U.S. Court of Appeals Allows Re-Trial of Justin Wolfe Despite State's Misconduct

On May 22, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled (2-1) that the federal District Court overstepped its authority when it barred any further prosecution of Justin Wolfe. The Circuit Court upheld the lower court's order requiring Virginia to either retry Wolfe or release him, and it further held that Virginia failed to comply with that order. In 2002, Wolfe was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to death in the murder of a drug dealer in Virginia. His conviction was based primarily on the testimony of the actual shooter, Owen Barber, who claimed that Wolfe hired him to kill the victim because of an outstanding debt. In 2010, Barber testified that his testimony at Wolfe's trial was false, and that Wolfe had nothing to do with the murder. The conviction was overturned by the District Court because the state had withheld crucial evidence from Wolfe's lawyers. The Court of Appeals had upheld that ruling earlier. In the current ruling, Judge Thacker, writing in dissent, would have barred any re-prosecution: “The misconduct of the Original Prosecuting Team has tainted this case to the extent that Wolfe’s due process rights are all but obliterated….The Commonwealth’s misconduct has continued far too long, and the cumulative misconduct permeating this case has tainted it in such a way that it is doubtful Wolfe will receive a fair and just trial. Enough is enough.”

NEW VOICES: Cost and Impact on Victims' Families Among Concerns for Conservative Christians

A recent article in the Liberty Champion, a publication of Liberty University, discussed the concerns some conservative Christians have about the death penalty. The article by student Whitney Rutherford focused on the financial costs of the death penalty and its emotional toll on murder victims’ families: “Rather than providing victims, their families, and the family of the accused an expedient result, these groups are dragged through the emotional upheaval of waiting and watching the justice system work.” The author also quoted James R. Acker, a distinguished professor at the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Albany, who questioned the role of capital punishment in a recent Colorado case. Acker asked, “Would the time and money devoted to achieving this man’s death not be better spent on services and law enforcement initiatives meant to repair and prevent the mindless devastation of criminal homicide?” The article concluded, “Christians may support capital punishment without negating their beliefs, but the modern approach to capital punishment is an expensive and emotionally destructive path. The death penalty has become a pit of money and lost years without providing the justice that victims expect.”

SENTENCING: Virginia's Use of the Death Penalty Sharply Declines

Virginia’s death row population has significantly decreased from a peak of 57 inmates in 1995 to 8 presently. Only two inmates have been added to death row in nearly five years. David Bruck (pictured), director of the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse at Washington and Lee University School of Law, remarked, "The process has largely ground to a halt. That is a huge development." He suggested the decline in death sentences is due to a greater acceptance of alternative punishments and the realization that mistakes can be made in capital convictions. Bruck said the DNA-based exoneration and freeing of Earl Washington, Jr., who was once nine days from execution, raised public awareness of the death penalty’s fallibility. Stephen Northup, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, agreed: “One of the strongest arguments against capital punishment is that we have an imperfect system which will always be imperfect. We're going to make mistakes, and the death penalty is an irrevocable punishment.”

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