Death penalty foes gaining?
Virginia executed eight inmates in 2000
Dec 27, 2000


They used a hammer, a crowbar, two shotguns and assorted handguns. Among them, they killed 17 people - mothers, fathers, children, store clerks, a college freshman and a state trooper.

Some of the victims died instantly; others suffered great pain and unspeakable indignities.

Eight capital murderers were put to death in Virginia this year. Only Texas (40) and Oklahoma (11) executed more. Virginia's executed were replaced by eight more killers sent to death row in 2000 by judges and juries.

A national study released in June found death cases were reversed by appeals courts less often in Virginia than in any other state and Virginia led the nation in the percentage of death sentences carried out.

For those who believe in the necessity for the state's ultimate sanction, it was a successful year for meting out justice to the worst of Virginia's criminals.

But in the past 12 months, questions have arisen about Virginia's capital punishment system, the most efficient in the country and, until October, a system that could be touted as error-free.

Indeed, foes of capital punishment have been heartened more by developments this past year, perhaps more than in any other year since the death penalty was reinstituted in Virginia in 1977.

In 2000, two death row inmates whose death sentences were reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court wound up with life sentences instead. In one case, the justices, for the first time in the nation, ruled a condemned man had not received adequate legal representation.

A former death row inmate, Earl Washington Jr., was cleared of the 1982 rape and capital murder - for which he was nearly executed in 1985 - by a DNA test and received an absolute pardon.

And an ACLU study this year questioned the way capital punishment is being administered in the commonwealth. Another study, prompted by the General Assembly last month, will be conducted next year.

Gov. Jim Gilmore remains a strong supporter of Virginia's system of capital punishment. Yet concerns, reflected in proposals to change rules or laws, have been expressed by both the legislature and the judiciary.

One Republican legislator, a long-time supporter of the death penalty, has promised to sponsor a bill that would end it.

Of all the developments, Washington's case carries the most import.

"I think it teaches us that even in a situation where 12 people have found a person guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and a judge has approved that finding, that mistakes can be made," said William G. Broaddus, a former Virginia attorney general who now opposes the death penalty.

He said that "while it's important we have confidence in the criminal justice system - and I think that confidence is deserved and well placed - we should never be so sure of a result that we should refuse to examine new" evidence of innocence.

Washington spent 91/2 years on death row.

Gilmore, said spokesman Mark A. Miner, sees nothing in the Washington case that would warrant changes in Virginia's system. Miner said the Washington case proves the system works in that the truth came out in the end.

But Broaddus said: "The system would not have worked if he had been executed in September of 1985 when I was attorney general. How could it have worked then?"

Washington came within nine days of being executed that month. A prison activist was able to find him a lawyer in New York, and the execution was called off.

Broaddus said the Washington case and others "have had an important legacy: there is dialogue which is going on now concerning the system that perhaps otherwise would not have occurred."

Richard Dieter agrees. Nationally, "I think the big story this year is the change in the atmosphere of the death penalty," he said.

Dieter is the director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, which opposes the way the death penalty is administered. He said developments this past year include conservatives expressing doubts about the death penalty, new studies showing serious flaws in death cases and "the continuing problem of innocence."

"I think that has created a new sense that there are serious problems, that this is a broken system. There may be legislative fixes, but there will be more calls for moratoriums and even abolition, and that includes Virginia," he said.

In the past, that might not have been credible, he said. "But now, I think, it has gained some possibility of success."

A report released last week by the death penalty center, titled "A Watershed Year of Change," concluded:

"Former supporters of the death penalty joined longtime critics in raising concerns about the accuracy and fairness of capital punishment in America. More conservative voices, such as those of Rev. Pat Robertson, Oliver North . . . columnist George Will, and others voiced strong criticisms of the death penalty. The risk of taking innocent lives and the gross inequities in the way the death penalty is applied have led to a new consensus that the system is seriously broken."

Foes of death penalty here aren't pinning hopes on an outright ban, but they believe developments have generated interest in a moratorium.

Henry Heller, director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said, "It's heartening to see all these years of struggle where you're trying to be heard, that they're finally listening."

"We've got a system that's broken," Heller said. "How can we kill people still with a system that's broken?"

Heller said that his organization is focusing on winning a moratorium. so the system can be studied for flaws.

A moratorium has been endorsed by two local bar associations, five newspapers, the Charlottesville City Council, the Virginia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the General Assembly's Black Caucus and dozens of churches, religious groups and clergy.

Robertson, the Virginia Beach television evangelist, came out in favor of a moratorium on executions. A poll of Virginians this fall indicated a majority of Virginians agreed.

But the proposal hasn't won any widespread support in the legislature. Gilmore, a former commonwealth's attorney in Henrico County, has repeatedly rejected the idea.

This year, Gilmore's Republican counterpart in Illinois, Gov. George H. Ryan, announced a moratorium in that state on executions so the system could be studied in light of the 13 wrongful death sentences.

Former President Jimmy Carter, a former Georgia governor, called for a moratorium Oct. 12.

A North Carolina legislative committee that analyzed the death penalty there voted in October to make several recommendations when the General Assembly returns in January. Among them is a temporary halt to executions until the state can ensure the death penalty is being applied fairly.

Developments in Virginia this year include:

  • The Virginia Supreme Court announced it plans to change Virginia's 21-day rule in capital murder cases. The rule prevents courts from considering evidence discovered more than 21 days after final judgment. 
  • The Virginia Crime Commission has drafted proposed legislation that would permit prisoners to obtain new DNA testing and give the deserving a way to get the evidence heard in a court. 
  • An ACLU study alleged the death penalty in Virginia has been marked by unfair trials, poor representation of defendants, limited appeals court review and the possible execution of innocent men. 
  • A national death penalty study by the Columbia University School of Law found that fewer death-penalty cases are reversed on appeal in Virginia than anywhere in the country, and the state leads the nation in the percentage of death sentences carried out. 

  • It found that Virginia's execution rate was nearly double that of the next nearest state studied and nearly five times the national average, while its reversal rate was nearly half that of the next nearest state and about one-fourth the national average.

    Supporters of the death penalty said the study demonstrated it was being administered better in Virginia than anywhere else in the country. Opponents said it demonstrated that its state and federal appeals courts do not give adequate scrutiny to Virginia death cases.

    Contact Frank Green at (804) 649-6340 or

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