STUDIES: Explaining Virginia's Disappearing Death Penalty

A new study by University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett (pictured) shows a dramatic decline in the death penalty in Virginia over the last decade. Virginia has carried out the third highest number of executions since the 1970s and historically has executed a higher percentage of its death-row prisoners than any other state. However, Garrett said there are now fewer than two capital sentencing trials per year and Virginia juries have not imposed any new death sentences since 2011. Reviewing Virginia capital proceedings from 2005 to 2014, Garrett found that "[a]lmost all capital cases are now plea bargained," with only 21 proceeding to a capital sentencing hearing. Juries imposed life sentences in more than half of those cases. Garrett found troubling trends in the evidence used in capital cases, which relied frequently on forms of evidence that have been found to be unreliable or susceptible to abuse, such as unrecorded confessions to police, informant testitmony, or eyewitness identifications. He also found significant geographic disparities in death penalty verdicts. “The ‘new’ Virginia death penalty is almost never imposed and when it is, a death sentence is so freakish that it raises the constitutional concerns with arbitrariness under the Eighth Amendment that U.S. Supreme Court justices have long expressed,” Garrett said. “Virginia may be a bellwether for the future of the American death penalty.” The study also compared sentencing proceedings in the past decade with 20 capital trials from 1996 to 2004 to try to explain the drop in death sentences. Garrett concluded that improved representation - both leading to pleas and in performance at trial - was the primary factor in the decline.   

Virginia established regional capital defense resource centers in 2004, giving capital defendants access to attorneys and investigators who specialize in death penalty representation. Thereafter, the average length of the sentencing phase doubled from 2 days of cursory representation prior to 2005 to 4 days after 2005, with triple the average number of defense witnesses presented and increased use of expert witnesses. The average number of prosecution witnesses was unchanged. "The impact of improved lawyering is striking," Garrett said, and suggests the need for representation by "a team of specialist capital defense lawyers and investigators ... that understand[s] the very different way that a death penalty case must be litigated from its inception."

(B. Garrett, "The Decline of the Virginia (and American) Death Penalty," October 19, 2015; L. O'Dell, "Study: Better legal defense leads to fewer death penalties," Associated Press, October 19, 2015; K. Reich, "Study: Improved Lawyering Behind Virginia’s Vanishing Death Penalty," UVAToday, October 19, 2015.)  See Studies and Representation.