Virginia

Virginia

Virginia Death-Row Prisoners Win “Landmark” Prison Conditions Lawsuit

In what lawyers for Virginia death-row prisoners have called “a landmark ruling,” a federal judge has issued an injunction barring the Commonwealth from subjecting prisoners who have been sentenced to death to automatic solitary confinement, physical isolation from visitors and other prisoners, and other harsh conditions. In a decision issued on February 21, Judge Leonie M. Brinkema wrote that the conditions to which Virginia subjected death-row prisoners before instituting reforms in 2015 violated the Eighth Amendment proscription against cruel and unusual punishments. Virginia had refused to commit to keeping the reforms, which it adopted only after the prisoners initiated suit, and the court's order prevents the state from reverting to the prior unconstitutional conditions. Before 2015, death sentenced prisoners spent about 23 hours a day alone in a 71-square-foot prison cell and were separated from visitors—including family members—by a plexiglass wall, although the warden had discretion to permit contact visits with family. For one hour a day, five days a week, prisoners were taken to a small “outdoor cell” with a concrete floor and no exercise equipment. Death-row prisoners were barred from the recreational facilities used by prisoners in the general population and allowed to shower only three times per week. Brinkema decided in favor of the three remaining death-row prisoners who had sued the state in 2014. While the suit was pending, one of the orginal plaintiffs, Ricky Gray, was executed and another, Ivan Teleguz, was granted a commutation. Lawyers for the prisoners said Brinkema's decision was the first time a court had ruled such conditions unconstitutional. In granting the prisoners' petition, the court said that “the rapidly evolving information available about the potential harmful effects of solitary confinement” set this case apart from prior prison-conditions lawsuits, and as a result the prior “decades-old determinations” by the Supreme Court and federal appeals court upholding death-row prison conditions were not binding. “As courts and corrections officers across the country have begun to realize, the years-long isolation that the pre-2015 conditions of confinement forced on plaintiffs created, at the least, a significant risk of substantial psychological and emotional harm,” Brinkema wrote. Kathryn Ali, one of the lawyers for the prisoners, said “[t]he law in this area is very bad but it's also very old. ... Judge Brinkema's ruling is a landmark ruling but i think its also just common sense, that we shouldn't be torturing people by keeping them in isolation.” Victor M. Glasberg, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the five original plaintiffs in 2014, said the court's decision could have implications for prison-conditions lawsuits in other states. “This opinion should serve as a snowball let loose at the top of a snowy mountain, to turn into an avalanche as advocates in other states bring similar suits to end what has become increasingly recognized as untenable conditions in which to hold human beings,” he said. Under the reforms Virginia implemented in 2015, death-row prisoners are permitted to have contact visits with family members one day per week, for up to an hour and a half, as well as non-contact visits on holidays and weekends. They now have access to a covered outdoor yard for up to an hour and a half per day, five days a week. The yard has a basketball court and exercise equipment, which up to four prisoners at a time may share. Virginia now also permits daily one-hour access for up to four prisoners at a time to an indoor recreation space that has games, music, and a television. Death-row prisoners also are now permitted to shower daily.

Virginia Governor Commutes Death Sentence of Mentally Incompetent Death-Row Prisoner

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe commuted the sentence of mentally incompetent death-row prisoner William Joseph Burns (pictured) on December 29, 2017, after multiple mental-health experts said Burns was unlikely to regain sufficient competency for his death sentence to ever be carried out. Burns, whose sentence was converted to life in prison without the possibility of parole, became the fifth death-row prisoner to have been granted clemency in the United States in 2017. Burns was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1998 rape and murder of his mother-in-law. Showing signs of severe mental illness, Burns was found incompetent to stand trial in 1999, delaying his trial for a year. At trial, his lawyers presented mitigating evidence that Burns had mental retardation (now known as intellectual disability), but the jury returned a death verdict. The Virginia Supreme Court upheld the conviction and sentence in 2001, but in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the use of the death penalty against people with mental retardation violated the Eighth Amendment. In 2005, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Burns had presented sufficient evidence of intellectual disability to warrant a trial on that issue. However, Burns exhibited continuing signs of severe mental illness and a court-appointed mental-health expert determined that he was actively psychotic, spawning more than a decade of litigation over his competency to stand trial. In issuing the commutation, McAuliffe wrote that the “continued pursuit of the execution of Mr. Burns, both as a matter of constitutional principle and legal practicality, cannot be justified.” McAuliffe noted that Virginia has already spent more than $350,000 in "treating, transferring, monitoring, and litigating whether Mr. Burns has the mental competence to conduct a trial on whether he has the intellectual capacity to be executed" and mental-health experts "have confirmed that Mr. Burns is not likely to be restored to competence. ... As of now," the Governor said, "there is no lawful way to impose the death sentence on Mr. Burns, and there is no clear path for that ever being possible." The commutation, McAuliffe said, "brings finality to these legal proceedings; it assures the victim’s family that Mr. Burns will never again enjoy freedom, but without the torment of post-trial litigation; and it allows the Commonwealth to devote its resources towards other cases. In my view, this is the only just and reasonable course." Virginia governors have commuted ten death sentences since the Commonwealth reinstated its death penalty in October 1975. In 2000, following DNA testing that proved his innocence, Governor Jim Gillmore granted an absolute pardon to Earl Washington. Most recently, Governor McAuliffe commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz five days before his scheduled April 25, 2017 execution, noting that the prosecution's use of false evidence to influence the jury's sentencing determination resulted in a death verdict that “was terribly flawed and unfair.”

Ex-Virginia Death-Row Prisoner With Strong Claim of Innocence Get Parole After 38 Years

Joseph M. Giarratano (pictured), a former Virginia death-row prisoner who came within two days of execution, has been been granted parole after 38 years in jail for a rape and double murder that lawyers and supporters have long said he did not commit. On November 20, twenty-six years after Governor L. Douglas Wilder commuted Giarratano's death sentence to life, the Virginia State Parole Board voted to grant him parole. Giarratano was convicted and sentenced to death in Norfolk, Virginia in 1979 for the rape and capital murder of a fifteen-year-old girl and the murder of her mother. Giarratano had lived in their apartment—which was known as a "party house" with a free flow of visitors—in the month before the murder and was there the night of the murders, but because of drug use, he says, he has no recollection of what happened. He said he woke up on the couch, discovered the bodies, and because no one else was in the apartment, he assumed he had committed the killings. He fled to Florida, where he turned himself in to a sheriff at a Jacksonville bus station and confessed to the murders. Over the course of time, Giarratano gave a total of five confessions, which were inconsistent with one another and conflicted with the evidence at the crime scene. Footprints, fingerprints, and pubic hairs were recovered at the crime scene and did not match either Giarratano or the victims. Experts indicated that the killer was right-handed, but Giarratano is left-handed. Giarratano's confessions were so inconsistent that detectives told him they did not believe him and, he said, provided him with detailed information that he then parroted back to them in his fifth confession. Gerald Zerkin, one of Giarratano’s lawyers, said "[t]here is nothing in the physical evidence that links Joe to the murders.... The prosecution’s whole case hinged on Joe’s confessions, which were total nonsense.” Leading experts on false confessions concluded in 2001 that there was "not a shred of significant or credible physical evidence supporting the conclusion that Joseph Giarratano’s contradictory and inconsistent confessions are reliable" and that considerable evidence led to "the conclusion that his confessions are false." While on death row, Giarratano became an avid reader and an advocate for other condemned prisoners, assisting in the exoneration of Earl Washington, a wrongfully convicted intellectually disabled man who came within eight days of execution. Giarranto was also the named party in a U.S. Supreme Court case, Murray v. Giarratano, in which Giarratano and others challenged Virginia's failure to provide post-conviction attorneys for condemned prisoners. The Court ruled 5-4 against the prisoners. Following his transfer off death row to the Augusta Correctional Center, Giarratano helped found the Center for Teaching Peace, a peace education program for prisoners. The state parole board's decision marks the first time in modern Virginia history that a defendant whose death sentence was commuted was granted parole. Richmond lawyer Stephen A. Northup represented Giarratano before the parole board and said, “For all the reasons that caused Governor Wilder to give Joe a conditional pardon more than 26 years ago, I believe Joe is innocent of the crimes for which he was convicted.”

Virginia, Pennsylvania Death Rows Smallest in a Quarter Century as Death Sentences Show Long-Term Decline

Death rows are shrinking nationwide, and the experience in states like Virginia and Pennsylvania helps explain why. Virginia's death row has fallen from a reported high of 58 in 1995 to four in September 2017, the lowest it has been since 1979. Pennsylvania's death row of 160 prisoners is its smallest in nearly 25 years—down from 175 last December and from a reported 247 in April 2002. These declines mirror the national trends, as the number of prisoners removed from death row continues to outstrip the number of new death sentences imposed. In May 2017, a Bureau of Justice Statistics report showed that the population of death row nationwide had decreased for 15 consecutive years. Although Virginia has executed more prisoners since 1976 than any other state but Texas, executions do not by themselves account for the magnitude of the decline, and Pennsylvania's death row has shrunk despite not having executed anyone this century. A combination of exonerations, court decisions overturning death sentences, commutations, and deaths while appeals were underway have also removed significant numbers of prisoners from the two Commonwealths' death rows. Moreover, as in states like Georgia and Missouri that have been among the nation's most prolific recent executioners, the increase in executions has been accompanied by a decrease in the number of new death sentences imposed by juries. State Delegate Robert B. Bell, a death-penalty proponent who chairs the Virginia State Crime Commission, said obtaining the death penalty has become “an arduous endeavor for prosecutors,” requiring expenditures of staff time and financial resources that small counties cannot afford. As in Georgia and Texas, which have experienced major declines in new death sentences, Virginia also has made trials fairer by creating regional capital defense offices that provide better representation to indigent defendants at trial and by informing juries that capital defendants who are sentenced to life in prison will not be eligible for parole. Low murder rates and historically low public support for the death penalty also have contributed to the decline in new death sentences. In Pennsylvania, more than fifty defendants have been removed from death row in the past decade as their convictions or death sentences were overturned and they were resentenced to terms of life or less, and more have had their sentences overturned in the interim. Recently, the removal of prisoners from the Commonwealth's death row accelerated after a federal appeals court struck down the state's long-standing practice of automatically keeping capital defendants in solitary confinement until they had completed their retrial or resentencing proceedings, even after courts had overturned their death sentences.

Independent Pathologist Says Autopsy Reveals Problems With Virginia's Execution of Ricky Gray

Something went wrong during the execution of Ricky Gray (pictured), who was put to death in Virginia on January 18, 2017, according to an independent expert who reviewed the official autopsy report of Gray's death. Dr. Mark Edgar, associate director of bone and soft tissue pathology at the Emory University School of Medicine, reviewed the official autopsy report, which Gray's family obtained from the Virginia medical examiner's office. Dr. Edgar says Gray suffered an acute pulmonary edema during the execution, with liquid in his upper airways and blood entering his lungs while he was still breathing. “The anatomic changes described in Ricky Gray’s lungs are more often seen in the aftermath of a sarin gas attack than in a routine hospital autopsy." Edgar said. "This is of concern especially given the fact that midazolam is not an anesthetic, but a sedative often used for medical procedures requiring conscious sedation and the issue that the compounded drugs used in this case may have lacked potency or been impure.” Virginia's lethal-injection protocol consists of three drugs: midazolam, a sedative intended to render the prisoner unconscious, followed by a paralytic intended to stop the prisoner's breathing, followed by potassium chloride, which stops the prisoner's heart. The use of midazolam in executions is controversial because it is not an anesthetic, it is used in medical settings only for lower levels of sedation rather than to produce full unconsciousness, and its use has been linked to numerous problematic executions. In Virginia, both the midazolam and the potassium chloride are produced by compounding pharmacies whose identities are secret under state law. “This way of dying is intolerable. You can’t control your breathing—it is terrible,” Edgar said. “When it is this severe, you can experience panic and terror and, if the individual was in any way aware of what was happening to them, it would be unbearable.” After Edgar's report was released on July 6, lawyers for William Morva—whose execution was scheduled in Virginia that night—asked Governor Terry McAuliffe for a temporary reprieve. “We believed a reprieve was appropriate to allow time for further investigation to ensure that the Commonwealth carries out future executions—including Mr. Morva’s—in a manner that avoids unnecessary pain and suffering,” explained Rob Lee, one of Morva's attorneys. McAuliffe denied the reprieve, and witnesses reported that Morva made a loud noise after the midazolam was administered and had several sharp contractions of his abdomen. The same three-drug protocol used in Virginia has been proposed for use in Ohio, but is being challenged in court by death-row prisoners. 

Mid-Year Review: Executions, New Death Sentences Remain Near Historic Lows in First Half of 2017

As we reach the mid-point of the year, executions and new death sentences are on pace to remain near historic lows in 2017, continuing the long-term historic decline in capital punishment across the United States. As of June 30, six states have carried out 13 executions, with 30 other executions that had been scheduled for that period halted by judicial stays or injunctions, gubernatorial reprieves or commutation, or rescheduled. By contrast, at the midpoint of 2016, five states had carried out 14 executions, and 25 other executions had been halted. 12 executions are currently scheduled for the rest of 2017, with 8 others already halted, and several more death warrants are expected to be issued. Depending on whether Ohio carries out the five executions pending between now and December, DPIC anticipates a slight increase in executions in the U.S. from 2016's 26-year low. However, even with the spate of four executions carried out in Arkansas from April 20-27—that state's first executions since 2005—there will likely be fewer executions in 2017 than in any other year since 1990. New death sentences also remain near historically low levels. DPIC has confirmed at least 16 new death sentences so far in 2017, a pace very close to the record-low 31 new death sentences imposed in 2016. Florida's abandonment of non-unanimous jury recommendations of death and Alabama's repeal of judicial override of jury recommendations for life are expected to substantially reduce the number of new death sentences in those states. The death sentences of nearly 100 Florida death-row prisoners have been overturned as a result of the state supreme court's declaration than non-unanimous death sentences are unconstitutional, and courts in Delaware and Connecticut have continued emptying those state's death rows after their death penalty statutes were declared unconstitutional. Three people have been exonerated from death row in 2017—Isaiah McCoy in Delaware, Rodricus Crawford in Louisiana, and Ralph Daniel Wright, Jr. in Florida—bringing the number of death-row exonerations in the U.S. since 1973 to 159. There have also been three grants of clemency in the first half of 2017, bringing the national total since 1976 to 283. President Barack Obama granted clemency to federal death-row prisoner Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz and military death-row prisoner Dwight Loving, and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe granted clemency to Ivan Teleguz. All three are now serving sentences of life without parole. The U.S. Supreme Court has issued three significant decisions in 2017 in favor of death-row prisoners. On February 22, in Buck v. Davis, the Court granted relief to Duane Buck due to racially biased testimony on the issue of future dangerousness. A month later, in Moore v. Texas, the Court unanimously struck down Texas' outlier practice for determining intellectual disability in capital cases. In McWilliams v. Dunn, the Court found on June 19 that James McWilliams' constitutional rights were violated when Alabama failed to provide him assistance of an independent mental-health expert. The Court ruled against Texas death-row prisoner Erick Davila on June 26.

Virginia Governor Commutes Death Sentence of Ivan Teleguz

On April 20, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz (pictured), whom the Commonwealth had scheduled to be executed on April 25. Teleguz will now serve a sentence of life without parole. It was the first  death-penalty clemency ever issued by Gov. McAuliffe. The official statement released to the media in conjunction with the commutation outlined several of the factors that influenced the Governor's decision, including the prosecution's use of false evidence that tainted the jury's choice to sentence Teleguz to death. "[D]uring the trial, evidence was admitted implicating Mr. Teleguz in another murder in a small Pennsylvania town," McAuliffe said. "In arguing for the death penalty, the prosecutor made explicit reference to this evidence in arguing that Mr. Teleguz was so dangerous that he needed to be put to death. We now know that no such murder occurred, much less with any involvement by Mr. Teleguz. It was false information, plain and simple, and while I am sure that the evidence was admitted in a good-faith belief in its truthfulness at the time, we now know that to be incorrect." McAuliffe also cited the disproportionality of sentencing Teleguz to death when Michael Hetrick, the admitted killer, received a sentence of life without parole in exchange for his testimony against Teleguz. "To allow a sentence to stand based on false information and speculation is a violation of the very principles of justice our system holds dear," McAuliffe said. Teleguz—a foreign national from the Ukraine—maintains that he is innocent of the crime, and his clemency petition received support from numerous political, religious, and business leaders.

With Looming Execution and Serious Innocence Concerns, Calls Mount for Virginia to Grant Clemency to Ivan Teleguz

Amid mounting concerns that Virginia may execute an innocent man on April 25, a diverse group of religious, political, and business leaders are calling on Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to grant clemency to Ivan Teleguz (pictured). Their pleas for clemency stress that Teleguz was convicted based upon highly unreliable testimony and sentenced to death based upon false testimony that he had been involved in a fabricated Pennsylvania murder that had, in fact, never occurred. Teleguz was convicted and sentenced to death on charges that he had hired Michael Hetrick to kill Stephanie Sipe, Teleguz's ex-girlfriend. But as a letter from more than two dozen prominent conservatives—including former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley and former Republican Party of Virginia executive director Shaun Kenney—urging McAuliffe to spare Teleguz explains, the case against him "relied almost entirely on dubious testimony" from the confessed murderer and two other witnesses who "later admitted that they lied in court and swore under oath that Teleguz was not involved in Sipe’s murder." Hetrick, they write, "had incentive to lie, since he received a deal sparing him from the death penalty in exchange for his testimony against Teleguz." He is now serving a life sentence. The others "confessed to giving false testimony at trial because of threats from the prosecutor and promises she made to lessen the severity of their sentences." Teleguz's clemency petition is also supported by former Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich, the Virginia Council of Churches, Virgin CEO Richard Branson, and more than 100,000 signers of a Change.org petition. The Richmond Times-Dispatch also urged McAuliffe to grant clemency, writing that "McAuliffe does not have to decide whether Teleguz is guilty or not. He merely has to decide whether new information casts doubt on the conviction." The paper wrote, "justice still will be served" by having Teleguz serve life in prison if he turns out to be guilty, but if the state executes an innocent man, "Virginia will have committed a great crime." The editorial concluded: "Given those two alternatives, the governor seems to face an easy choice." [UPDATE: On April 20, 2017, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe granted clemency to Ivan Teleguz.]

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