Virginia

Virginia

IN MEMORIAM: Marie Deans, A Life of Commitment to Justice and Founder of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation

On April 15, 2011, Marie McFadden Deans died in Charlottesville, Virginia. For three decades, Deans sought justice for death row inmates who had no other recourse and who had been poorly represented.  Professor Todd Peppers of Roanoke College wrote in an op-ed about her life that she brought "basic conditions of decency to the men who inhabited Virginia’s death row,... refin[ed] the use of mitigation evidence in death penalty trials, [and] struggl[ed] to exonerate factually innocent men." Deans's commitment to repealing the death penalty was sparked after the murder of her mother-in-law, Penny Deans, by an escaped convict. Marie founded Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, an organization, designed to give those who opposed the death penalty “a safe place from which they could speak out.”  She  was a self-taught mitigation expert, and, largely because of her efforts, only two of the 200 men that she helped defend during their sentencing hearings were ultimately given the death penalty. Perhaps her greatest triumph was the exoneration of Virginia death row inmate Earl Washington, Jr., a man with intellectual disabilities, whose false confession was the product of police coercion and manipulation. Washington was awarded almost $2 million dollars in damages "for the imprisonment that resulted from the fabrication of evidence against him and would become one of the compelling stories cited in the steady rise of death row exonerations across the country."

U.S. Supreme Court Orders Reconsideration of “Vindictive Prosecution” in Virginia Capital Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered the Virginia Supreme Court to address a claim brought by former death-row prisoner Justin Wolfe (pictured) that prosecutors had engaged in unconstitutional vindictive prosecution against him after federal courts had found that his conviction and death sentence had been obtained through egregious prosecutorial misconduct. The Virginia Supreme Court had ruled that Wolfe’s guilty plea to the enhanced charges brought against him after his first conviction was overturned barred him from challenging the prosecutors’ conduct. In a two-sentence order on January 7, 2019, the Supreme Court granted Wolfe’s petition to review his case, summarily reversed the state court decision, and directed the Virginia Supreme Court to consider Wolfe’s vindictive prosecution claim.

Wolfe was convicted and sentenced to death in 2002 on charges that he had hired Owen Barber to kill Daniel Petrole, Jr. His conviction was overturned in 2011 when U.S. District Court Judge Raymond A. Jackson found that the prosecution had intentionally withheld exculpatory evidence, threatened a witness with the death penalty if he did not testify against Wolfe, and presented false testimony to the jury. Judge Jackson described the prosecutorial and police misconduct in the case as “abhorrent to the judicial process.” Barber, the admitted triggerman and the state’s key witness against Wolfe, had recanted his testimony in 2005. He said, “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.” Prosecutors had in their possession, but withheld from the defense, a police report documenting that a detective had suggested to Barber that he implicate Wolfe in the murder or face execution, as well as information that Barber had confessed to his roommate that he had acted alone in committing the murder. The prosecution attempted to justify its conduct by saying it had withheld the evidence to avoid providing Wolfe with information that could be used “to fabricate a defense.”

In 2012, Judge Jackson ordered Virginia to release Wolfe and barred a retrial, saying that a prosecution visit to Barber in 2012 in which it again threatened him with the death penalty if he did not cooperate showed "the same subtle but unmistakable coercion" as earlier efforts to induce his testimony. Six months later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the District Court’s ruling and allowed the state to retry Wolfe. Prosecutors not only sought to retry Wolfe, but added six new charges. Rather than face the possibility of another death sentence, Wolfe agreed to a plea deal. He pled guilty and was sentenced to 83 years in prison, with 42 years suspended. He attempted to appeal the validity of the plea “in light of the Commonwealth’s vindictive prosecution,” but the Virginia Supreme Court on February 5, 2018 refused his petition for appeal. He sought review in the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that his appeal should be allowed under its 2018 decision in Class v. United States, which held that “‘a plea of guilty to a charge does not waive a claim that—judged on its face—the charge is one which the State may not constitutionally prosecute.’” The Supreme Court reversed the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling and sent the case back for further consideration in light of Class.

NEW VOICES: Head of National Pharmacist's Group Opposes Lethal Injection Secrecy

Leonard Edloe (pictured), President of the American Pharmacists Association Foundation has urged Virginia lawmakers to reject Governor Terry McAuliffe's proposal to conceal the identity of the state's execution drug supplierssaying that the plan "undermines everything our profession stands for, and is actually against the law." In an op-ed in The Virginian-Pilot on the eve of a veto session in which the Virginia state legislature will consider the secrecy proposal, Edloe wrote: "Medicines are made to save lives, not end them. They’re not designed, or tested, to kill people." Edloe says "[k]eeping pharmacies out of the execution process is not just a point of principle. Federal law says drugs must be prescribed to a specific patient for a medicinal purpose. An execution clearly does not qualify." He describes the risks of compounding, pointing to the 2012 outbreak of fungal meningitis caused by badly compounded drugs, which killed 64 people. "In response, the federal government passed laws and regulations to increase the scrutiny of compounding pharmacies to protect the public," he said. "McAuliffe proposes the opposite approach — to give irresponsible compounders insulation from regulation — preventing the state taking action if a compounder supplied bad drugs that led to a botched execution." In 2015 the American Pharmacists Association issued a declaration opposing pharmacist involvement in capital punishment, and Edloe called such involvement "fundamentally contrary to the role of pharmacists as providers of healthcare." The current debate over secrecy, he says, "helps drive home the point that professional pharmacists have no place in the process." UPDATE: The Virginia legislature approved Gov. McAuliffe's amendments on April 20. 

EDITORIALS: Washington Post Calls for Transparency in Executions

In light of the three botched executions that took place in 2014, the Washington Post published an editorial urging states not to drop "a veil of secrecy over executions." In particular, the editorial board opposes a proposed law in Virginia, which, "would make practically everything about executions in Virginia a state secret — even the building in which they take place. " "It’s hard to see the compelling need for that kind of blatant censorship, which in other states has been challenged by death row inmates, civil liberties groups and media outlets as an infringement on the First Amendment," the editorial said. "Depriving the public of information on the dark side of capital punishment, and impoverishing the public debate, will not make botched executions any more palatable." It calls such laws constitutionally suspect, adding, "The fact that such mishaps might arouse public disgust does not justify granting anonymity to drug companies that enter into government contracts. If it did, states might conclude that any unpleasant news, and the resulting inconvenient public reaction, would occasion suspending the First Amendment." Read the editorial below.

Virginia Man Denied Consular Rights, Will Not Face Death Penalty

A Virginia judge ruled that prosecutors may not seek the death penalty against a Vietnamese man accused of murdering two people because police violated the man's rights under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations by not informing him that he could contact his country's consulate. "[T]he duty to give notice is absolute. . . . [T]he idea that the state can completely ignore its treaty obligations without consequence essentially obliterates the purpose for which the rights under the Vienna Convention were intended," Judge Alden of Fairfax County wrote in barring the death penalty against Dihn Pham. Pham's trial is scheduled to take place later this month, and he now faces a possible sentence of life without parole.

Woman with Mental Disabilities Facing Execution in Virginia

An execution date of September 23 was recently set for Teresa Lewis, the only woman on Virginia’s death row. Although a number of other people were involved in the same crime, including the actual shooters of the two victims, Lewis was the only person sentenced to death.  She pled guilty at trial.  Since being sent to death row in 2002, Lewis has taken responsibility and apologized for her actions.  She has had an exemplary record while in prison and does not appear to be a future danger if she remained there.  Her current attorneys have pointed to her low IQ (measured as low as 72) and her vulnerability to being led by others as mitigating factors for the crime.  She has a Dependent Personality Disorder and suffered from other mental disabilities at the time of the crime.  If her execution goes through, Lewis would be the first woman to be executed in Virginia since 1912 and the first in the United States since 2005.

Legislative Activity - Virginia

Life After Death Row

Pages