Virginia

Virginia

HISTORY: Public Executions in Virginia

A new book by Professor Harry M. Ward of the University of Richmond examines the death penalty in Virginia at a time when executions were carried out for all to see. In Public Executions in Richmond, Virginia: A History, 1782-1907, Ward provides a history of the hangings and, during the Civil War, firing-squad executions in Virginia's capital city. Thousands of witnesses attended the executions, which were seen as a form of entertainment. Public executions ended with the introduction of the electric chair in 1908. In 1995, Virginia adopted lethal injection as its primary form of execution.

 

U.S. Court of Appeals Throws Out Virginian's Death Sentence and Conviction

On August 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a lower court ruling vacating Justin Wolfe’s (pictured) conviction and death sentence for a drug-conspiracy murder in Virginia in 2001.  His conviction was based primarily on the testimony of the actual shooter, Owen Barber, who claimed that Wolfe hired him to kill Daniel Petrole because of an outstanding drug debt. In 2010, Barber testified in open court that his testimony at Wolfe's trial was false, and that Wolfe had nothing to do with Petrole's death. Barber also admitted he agreed to implicate Wolfe in order to avoid the death penalty.  The 4th Circuit threw out all of Wolfe's convictions because the state had withheld crucial evidence showing that it was the police who introduced Barber to the idea of Wolfe's part in the conspiracy, and implying that Barber could avoid the death penalty if he so testified. (Referring to the Newsome report).  The court criticized the prosecution for intentionally withholding vital materials from the defense: "[W]e feel compelled to acknowledge that the Commonwealth’s suppression of the Newsome report, as well as other apparent Brady materials, was entirely intentional," the court wrote.

STUDIES: What Percent of Convictions Are Mistaken?

In June, the National Institute of Justice released the results of a study to determine how often modern DNA testing of evidence from older cases confirms the original conviction.  The study, conducted by the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C, tested DNA evidence that had been retained in homicide and sexual assault convictions that occurred between 1973 and 1987 in Virginia.  Among the homicides, there were not enough cases in which DNA would be determinative of guilt to make statistically reliable conclusions about mistakes.  In cases of sexual assault, DNA testing revealed that in 8-15% of the convictions, the convicted offenders were eliminated as the source of questioned evidence and that elimination was supportive of an exoneration.  The report concluded, “Even our most conservative estimate suggests that 8 percent (or more) of sexual assault convictions in a 15-year period may have been wrongful. That means hundreds, if not more than a thousand, convicted offenders may have been wrongfully convicted. That also means hundreds (if not more) victims have not received the just result, as previously believed. Therefore, whether the true rate of potential wrongful conviction is 8 percent or 15 percent in sexual assaults in Virginia between 1973 and 1987 is not as important as the finding that these results require a strong and coordinated policy response."

NEW VOICES: Former Judges and Law Enforcement Officials Criticize Death Row Inmate's Conviction

Thirty-four high-profile former judges and law enforcement officials recently filed an amicus brief arguing against Virginia's efforts to reinstate the conviction of Justin Wolfe (pictured).  Wolfe's attorneys maintain he was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in a 2002 murder-for-hire case because of false testimony from the actual shooter, Owen Barber. In 2005, Barber admitted to lying under oath, saying, “The prosecution and my own defense attorney placed me in a position in which I felt that I had to choose between falsely testifying against Justin or dying.”  In July 2011, a federal District Court overturned Wolfe’s conviction, citing the state’s use of Barber’s false testimony. Among those urging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to affirm the District Court ruling are J. Joseph Curran Jr., who served as attorney general of Maryland; Gerald Kogan, former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Florida; and former attorneys general from Tennessee and New Jersey.

LEGISLATION: Virginia Rejects Death Penalty Expansion Bill

On February 22, Virginia's legislature blocked a bill that would have allowed the death penalty for accomplices to murder who did not actually carry out the killing. The bill would have revised the state’s “triggerman rule,” which allows the death penalty only for the person directly responsible for the actual murder. Two weeks ago, the Senate version of the bill was rejected by the Courts of Justice Committee on a 7-7 vote. The House then passed its own version of the bill, forcing the Senate to reconsider the measure. The Courts Committee again rejected the expansion bill, this time by a vote of 8-6. The vote difference was attributed to Republican Senator Bryce Reeves, who said he changed his vote based on his religious beliefs. Similar bills were passed by the Virginia legislature in 2008 and 2009, but were vetoed by then-Governor Tim Kaine. In 2010 and 2011, the Senate Courts Committee rejected similar bills. Stephen Northup, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, called the bill “an unnecessary[,] expensive and risky expansion of capital punishment.” Among those opposing the bill were representatives of Catholic organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli. Some of these noted that the state already ranks second to Texas in the number of executions since the the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and that expanding death penalty eligibility would increase the chances of executing an innocent person.

STUDIES: Virginia Leads the Country in Death Sentences Resulting in Executions

According to a recent study by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Virginia executes the highest proportion of people sentenced to death of any state in the country. Of the 149 death sentences handed down through 2010, 108 have resulted in an execution, a rate of about 72 percent.  Virginia is second to Texas in the total number of executions carried out since 1976, but Texas has executed less than half of those sentenced to death.  In many states, less than 1 in 10 death sentences have resulted in an execution.  Inmates in Virginia also spend the shortest time on death row prior to execution--on average, just 7.1 years--compared to a national average of just over 14 years for those executed in 2009.  From the mid-1970s to 1995, just 18% of Virginia death cases were reversed by appeals courts. Nationally, 68% of death cases were reversed in the same time period.  According to Richard J. Bonnie, director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, "almost from the beginning, Virginia has basically tried to expedite the process of state post-conviction review and reduce the kinds of claims that can be raised in state courts." As a result, most of the post-conviction review occurs in federal court, particularly the 4th Circuit, which Bonnie described as "reluctant to set aside death sentences." 

DPIC RESOURCES: New State Pages Now Available

DPIC is pleased to announce the completion of our State Information Pages for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.  These state profiles provide historical and current information on the death penalty for each state, including famous cases, past legislative actions, and links to key organizations and state officials.  For frequently updated information, such as execution totals, the size of death row, or the number of exonerations, see our State-by-State Database.  Readers are encouraged to send additional information, pictures, and links to organizations in their state.  You can reach the State Information Pages through the "State by State" button at the top of every page on our website or under the "Resources" tab in our main menu.

NEW RESOURCES: States Ranked by Executions Per Death Sentence

DPIC has updated its Executions Per Death Death Sentence page to reflect data through 2010.  This page lists states in order of the percentage of death sentences resulting in an execution since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.  If every death sentence resulted in an execution, the state would be at 100%, or a rate of 1.00.  Using this ratio of executions per death sentence, the first five states are Virginia (.725), Texas (.498), Utah (.368), Missouri (.347), and Delaware (.311).  Of those states that have carried out at least one execution, the five states with the lowest rate of execution are Pennsylvania (.008), California (.015), Idaho (.025), Oregon (.028), and Tennessee (.035).  Four states with the death penalty during this time period had no executions: Kansas, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and New York.  The latter two have abandoned the death penalty.  Nationally, about 15% of death sentences have resulted in an execution (a rate of .150).  Another measure of state execution rates is executions per capita (population).  Under this standard, Oklahoma and Texas are the leading states.

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