Virginia, Pennsylvania Death Rows Smallest in a Quarter Century as Death Sentences Show Long-Term Decline

Death rows are shrinking nationwide, and the experience in states like Virginia and Pennsylvania helps explain why. Virginia's death row has fallen from a reported high of 58 in 1995 to four in September 2017, the lowest it has been since 1979. Pennsylvania's death row of 160 prisoners is its smallest in nearly 25 years—down from 175 last December and from a reported 247 in April 2002. These declines mirror the national trends, as the number of prisoners removed from death row continues to outstrip the number of new death sentences imposed. In May 2017, a Bureau of Justice Statistics report showed that the population of death row nationwide had decreased for 15 consecutive years. Although Virginia has executed more prisoners since 1976 than any other state but Texas, executions do not by themselves account for the magnitude of the decline, and Pennsylvania's death row has shrunk despite not having executed anyone this century. A combination of exonerations, court decisions overturning death sentences, commutations, and deaths while appeals were underway have also removed significant numbers of prisoners from the two Commonwealths' death rows. Moreover, as in states like Georgia and Missouri that have been among the nation's most prolific recent executioners, the increase in executions has been accompanied by a decrease in the number of new death sentences imposed by juries. State Delegate Robert B. Bell, a death-penalty proponent who chairs the Virginia State Crime Commission, said obtaining the death penalty has become “an arduous endeavor for prosecutors,” requiring expenditures of staff time and financial resources that small counties cannot afford. As in Georgia and Texas, which have experienced major declines in new death sentences, Virginia also has made trials fairer by creating regional capital defense offices that provide better representation to indigent defendants at trial and by informing juries that capital defendants who are sentenced to life in prison will not be eligible for parole. Low murder rates and historically low public support for the death penalty also have contributed to the decline in new death sentences. In Pennsylvania, more than fifty defendants have been removed from death row in the past decade as their convictions or death sentences were overturned and they were resentenced to terms of life or less, and more have had their sentences overturned in the interim. Recently, the removal of prisoners from the Commonwealth's death row accelerated after a federal appeals court struck down the state's long-standing practice of automatically keeping capital defendants in solitary confinement until they had completed their retrial or resentencing proceedings, even after courts had overturned their death sentences.

(N. Brambila, "Pennsylvania has fewest number of inmates on death row in nearly 25 years," The Reading Eagle, September 6, 2017; F. Green, "There are only 4 inmates on death row in Virginia, down from at least 57 in 1995," Richmond Times Dispatch, September 5, 2017.) See Death Row, Life Without Parole, Sentencing, and Representation.