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.)

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Death Sentences Declining in Texas

Death sentences have dropped significantly over the last few years in Texas according to a study by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The number of death sentences is at a 35-year low as prosecutors have pushed for fewer death sentences and juries have become less willing to impose them. Since 2005, defendants may receive a sentence of life without parole instead of the death penalty. Before this change, the only alternative to the death penalty in Texas was a life sentence with eligiblity for parole after 40 years, or even less in earlier years. Since the introduction of life without parole, death sentences in Texas have dropped 40 percent compared with the four years prior. Texas had 13 death sentences in 2008, and 9 so far this year. Ten years ago, Texas sentenced 47 defendants to death.

"With life without parole being a viable option now, [juries] feel a lot more comfortable that that person is not going to be let out back into society," said Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon. "We are probably waiving the death penalty more times than we used to because we’re trying to forecast the outcome of the case. . . .It doesn’t translate to dollar bills. It translates into uses of limited resources."

Other reason offered for the decline indeath sentences were the number of wrongful convictions and the costs of prosecuting death sentences.  State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, the author of the life-without-parole law, said "It isn't life without parole that has weakened the death penalty.  It is a growing lack of belief that our system is fair." Reports of exonerations have appeared regularly in the past few years, and jurors may have become more worried about sending an innocent person to death row. A poll from Rasmussen Reports revealed that 73% of Americans are at least somewhat concerned that some people may be executed who were innocent.  In addition, higher costs of pursuing the death penalty have become a concern in the midst of the economic recession. Pursuing life without parole is a cheaper alternative, saving the state millions in legal costs as cases are settled expeditiously.

In Harris County (Houston), which has sent more people to death row than most states, death sentences have dropped nearly 70 % over the last 4 years. "In many more cases, we are opting not to seek the death penalty because life without parole means the person convicted will not get out of prison and that makes us feel much better that the public will be protected from such a person," said Maria McAnulty, the county's trial bureau chief.

(A. Batheja, "Death sentences have dropped sharply after life without parole became possible," Fort Worth Star-Telegram, November 15, 2009).  See also Life Without Parole and Sentencing.

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NEW VOICES: 'Zachary's Law' Case Settles with a Life Sentence; Victim's Family Given Finality

Todd Snider, the father of Zachary Snider, who was killed at age 10 by Christopher Stevens in Indiana, accepted final resolution of the case against Stevens when a settlement was reached for a sentence of life without parole. “Our family has suffered enough and would like for this to be resolved once and for all," Mr. Snider said about the life sentence. "This will give our family finality. Chris Stevens will die in prison and will never have the opportunity to destroy people's lives again."  The 1993 murder led to the passage of Zachary’s Law, creating Indiana's sex offender registry.  Stevens was originally sentenced to death, but the sentence was overturned in 2007 because Stevens' attorneys had not adequately presented evidence of the defendant's mental illness.  Putnam County Prosecutor Tim Bookwalter said he “believe[s] it was probable that another jury would have given Mr. Stevens the death penalty, but it would have caused the Sniders to go through a lengthy jury trial, and then if convicted, a new set of appeals could have gone on another 10 years. With the plea, this case is over. There are no more appeals and the Sniders should never have to deal with Stevens again."

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NEW RESOURCES: State Instructions for Juries Regarding Life Without Parole Sentences in Capital Cases

In all states that use the death penalty, there are provisions for sentencing inmates to the alternative sentence of life without parole (LWOP).  Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Simmons v. South Carolina (1994), some states with LWOP did not inform the jury of this alternative even when so requested by the defense.  Today, states apply a variety of conditions and use differing instructions to inform the jury about this alternative sentence.  Opinion polls and surveys of capital jurors have shown how important this alternative is in death penalty cases.  Thanks to the research of Emma Reynolds of Drexel Law School and Intern at the Philadelphia Federal Defender, Capital Habeas Unit, we are able to offer a summary of how states handle this key issue.  Her paper, "Survey of Life Without Parole Instructions in Death Penalty States," provides the relevant statute and information about jury instructions in each death penalty state.  As with any legal research, it would be important to research any changes in the law before using this information (e.g., New Mexico has now abolished the death penalty and replaced the sentence with LWOP). The table of statutes and instructions is provided in both pdf and Excel format:

Survey of Life Without Parole Instructions in Death Penalty States (pdf)

Survey of Life Without Parole Instructions in Death Penalty States (Excel).

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