Roanoke Times

Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr., R-McLean*

Virginia needs a moratorium on the death penalty

In the past, I have been a strong advocate of the death penalty. I voted in favor of the resumption of capital punishment in 1977, and I have supported additional provisions expanding the categories of criminal actions for which the death penalty may be imposed.

However, I have now become one of those who believe that we must take another look at the death penalty. In other words, I have come full circle when it comes to giving states such as Virginia the power to take the life of a human being.

In fact, I’m now proposing a 2-year moratorium on executions.

Why do I think it’s time we should take another look at the death penalty?

In the 1st place, there is insurmountable evidence that capital punishment is no deterrent to murder. Even the most ardent advocates of keeping the death penalty have dropped that argument.

But there are other compelling reasons as well.

In my capacity as chairman of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the Virginia Legislature’s watchdog agency, I initiated a study on the application of capital punishment throughout the state.

The JLARC study concluded that, more than any other factor, geographical location within the commonwealth was most strongly associated with the decision by the commonwealth’s attorneys to seek the death penalty.

The study noted that “the overall rate at which local prosecutors in high-density jurisdictions sought the death penalty in capital-eligible cases was 200 percent lower than was observed in medium-density localities.

“Thus a key question for this study was whether the factors which appear to be associated with the decision of commonwealth’s attorneys to seek the death penalty in capital murder are related to the specifics of the case (such as type of crime, or nature of the evidence), external to the case (such as type of locality), or extra-legal (such as the defendant’s race).”

In other words, a murderer is twice as likely to face a death sentence in a rural setting than if the same act were committed in a city.

I found the fact that the imposition of the death penalty depends on where in the commonwealth a crime was committed profoundly troubling.

The JLARC study also addresses the state’s “21-day rule.” That rule, common to both civil and criminal matters in Virginia, requires any party seeking review of a trial court decision to do so within 21 days of the date of entry of the final judgment, or sentence.

After that, you are out of luck.

The rule itself has merit. It is important that judgments be final, and that cases do not continue forever.

The problem arises when the desire for finality overrides the need for accuracy. In the criminal context, at present, an individual may be sentenced to death, and remain subject to that sentence, if an alibi witness conclusively able to exculpate a defendant is located 22 days after that person’s final sentence.

Many jurisdictions continue to impose time limits on the reintroduction of new evidence. However, Virginia’s 21-day rule limitation is the shortest in the United States.

The JLARC report also notes that, in Virginia, as in many other states, there remain long-standing questions concerning the quality of legal representation afforded indigents who are charged with capital murder.

The adequacy of legal representation remains a serious issue, and will in all likelihood remain so, given the woefully inadequate compensation paid to court-appointed lawyers in the commonwealth, and the almost universal lack of funds for investigative and other support services.

In contrast, other states, such as Washington state, provide public defenders’ offices with the same funding for defense lawyers and investigators as for the prosecutors. The defendant at least has a fighting chance to get reasonable representation and reasonable investigative support.

Public sentiment in Virginia appears to still favor the death penalty. Politicians listen to pollsters.

However, I believe it is time for a new dialogue on the death penalty. New scientific evidence, such as DNA testing, has revolutionized all areas of crime detection, criminal prosecution and criminal defense.

It is time to take a fresh look at how, and when, Virginia - now 2nd only to Texas in the number of executions - imposes the death penalty.

It is time to look carefully at the means by which people who are incarcerated wrongfully might have their sentences reviewed, based on newly discovered evidence.

A moratorium on executions for 2 years would allow for that dialogue to begin. Those now awaiting execution would not have their sentences vacated or otherwise set aside. Those now awaiting trial would still be subject to the death penalty as at present. I do not have any preconceived ideas about what, if anything, should be done specifically to “fix” our current system. However, I have come to believe that our current system is not working.

I believe that elected officials and the public will come to the same conclusion once they review recent studies and evidence.

A moratorium on the death penalty will give elected officials and the general public the chance to take a hard look at the evidence to see whether the death penalty is serving its purpose.

*Virginia Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr., R-McLean, represents the 34th House of Delegates District and chairs the House Appropriations Committee