Death Sentences Have Become Rare in Virginia

Virginia has not had a death verdict from a jury since March 2008, the longest stretch of time without a death verdict since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s. Nationally, there has also been a decline in death sentences: according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 115 death sentences in 2007, 65% less than the 326 that were handed down in 1995. In Virginia, part of this decline might be attributed to a change in state law made effective in 1995 that eliminated the possibility of parole with a life sentence. Scott Sunby, professor of law at Washington and Lee University, said he believes that this decline can also be attributed to the rising cost of winning death sentences, more effective defense lawyers, and a dwindling public desire for capital punishment. (There are currently 14 prisoners on Virginia’s death row; in 1995 there were 55 inmates on the row. Virginia is second to Texas in the number of executions carried out since 1976.)

(See F. Green, “Va. goes 20 months without a death verdict from a jury,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 14, 2009). See also Sentencing and Life Without Parole.