Representation Improves, Death Sentences Dramatically Drop in Virginia

The number of people sentenced to death in Virginia has plummeted from 40 in the years 1998-2005 to only 6 from 2006 through April 2015. A recent study suggests that improvements in capital representation in the state may have played a significant role in that dramatic change. In 2004, Virginia established four regional capital defender offices, which are completely devoted to handling death penalty cases. The year before the defender offices opened, Virginia juries imposed 6 death sentences, but have not imposed more than 2 in any year since.  This mirrors the experience in other jurisdictions in which defendants have been represented by institutional capital defenders. In addition to better outcomes at trial, "[a] capable and vigorous defense no doubt accounts — at least in part — for the increased willingness of prosecutors to resolve capital cases short of death," University of Virginia law professor John G. Douglass said in his study.

The rate of capital indictments dropped from 34 per year from 1995 to 1999 to 22 per year from 2008 to 2013, but the percentage of those cases that went to trial dropped even more, from 34% to 19%, suggesting that prosecutors became more willing to negotiate pleas for lesser sentences. Doug Ramseur, a Virginia capital defender, said the change also reflects, "recognition that juries are giving out the death sentence less," because of the alternative of life without parole. Dinwiddie County Commonwealth's Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill said, "If you think you're not going to be successful, it's foolish to seek [the death penalty]. As a steward of resources and what society wants, that comes into play. It's an awful lot to drag the community through, especially when it could go the other way."  

(L. O'Dell, "Pace of Death Sentences, Executions Slows in Virginia," Associated Press, May 3, 2015.) See Sentencing and Representation.