Virginia

Virginia

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.”

NEW VOICES: Former Virginia Executioner Calls for End of Death Penalty

Jerry Givens spent 17 years as the correctional officer in charge of Virginia’s electrocutions. During his tenure, he carried out 62 executions. He now strongly opposes the death penalty. The thought that he might execute an innocent person was a major factor in his change of heart. “The only thing I can do is pray to God to forgive me if I did,” Givens said. “But I do know this — I will never do it again.” The pending execution of Earl Washington, Jr. had a significant impact on Givens. Washington, with an IQ of 69, confessed to the 1982 rape and murder of a woman in Culpeper, Virginia. Many years later, DNA tests provided compelling evidence that Washington was not the killer, and he was eventually pardoned.  Givens remarked, “If I execute an innocent person, I’m no better than the people on death row.” The risk of executing an innocent person is also eroding public confidence in capital punishment. Virginia has changed from a state that had 13 executions in one year to having only 1 execution in two years, and less than 1 death sentence per year in the last five.

First Inmate to be Executed in 2013 Asked for Death Penalty; Exhibited Severe Mental Illness

Robert Gleason is scheduled to be the first person executed in the U.S. in 2013 on the night of January 16 in Virginia. At his trial, he told the court he wanted the death penalty and has waived all his appeals since his conviction. He has chosen to be executed by electrocution. Gleason's lawyers maintain he is severely mentally ill and his mental capacity has deteriorated during his time on death row. He suffers from extreme paranoia, delusional thinking, severe anxiety and other mental afflictions. Attorney Jon Sheldon stated that Gleason’s "mental illness is causing him to be suicidal, and he is enlisting the government's help to end his life.” His life was described as "profoundly disturbed and traumatic," marked by abuse as a child, with depression and other mental health problems as an adult. Virginia had no executions and no death sentences in 2012.

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