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.”

Stephen Northup, a Richmond lawyer and executive director of Virginia for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said that the Virginia system moves too quickly and without enough scrutiny. “I would say that when it comes to death, certainty is more important than efficiency,” Northup said. “We’re increasing the risk that we’re going to execute an innocent person.” He pointed to the case of Earl Washington, who was eventually exonerated and freed from death row. Rather than finding relief from the courts, Washington was spared because of DNA evidence and commutations from two governors.

(F. Green, “Path to execution swifter, more certain in Va.,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 4, 2011.) See also Virginia, Arbitrariness, and Sentencing.