It has been seven years since a death sentence was imposed in Virginia, and the state’s death row population, which once hovered near 60, is down to three inmates.
The trend is similar across the country — 42 people were sentenced to death this year, the third-fewest in 33 years. And for the first time in 25 years, fewer than 2,500 people are on death rows, according to figures released Friday by The Death Penalty Information Center.
According to the center’s report, 25 people were executed in the U.S. this year, the fourth year in a row with fewer than 30 executions, something that has not happened since 1988-1991. In 1999 there were 98 executions, the most in one year since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in 1976.
Virginia has executed 113 people since then, the second-most in the country, but far behind Texas, the leader with 558 executions. Most recently in Virginia, two people were executed last year.
“Virginia is an extremely good example of what is happening around the country,” said Brandon L. Garrett, a member of the DPIC’s board of directors and a professor at the Duke University School of Law, who formerly was on the faculty of the University of Virginia School of Law.
Garrett focused a chapter on Virginia in his book, “End of its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice,” which was published last year.
“We haven’t seen a [Virginia] death sentence in seven years. It’s not an accident. There are a number of contributors to the decline, including the dip in murder rates.”
Another major factor has been the establishment of four regional capital representation offices in Virginia that provide expert help in death penalty trials. “In states where you still have untrained, court-appointed lawyers you still have some death sentencings,” Garrett said.
The Virginia offices were created in 2002 and state law required they help out in all death penalty trials effective July 1, 2004.
“The states that have declined the most are states like Virginia where there is some minimally competent representation,” Garrett said.
“In Virginia the contrast is really stark. I looked at capital trials from the ’90s and how many witnesses were called by the defense versus the prosecution; how many days they last,” he said. He found some trials that lasted only two days in which almost all the witnesses were called by the prosecution. In some cases it was later learned the defendants were severely mentally ill.
“There were notorious cases where the defense lawyers didn’t do the bare minimum and they couldn’t. They didn’t have an office, they didn’t have experts, they didn’t have support staff,” he said.
Once the capital defender offices began assisting, fewer death sentences were won, he said. But even before that, in the early 2000s, Garrett said, seeking the death penalty became an expensive proposition.
“Death sentencing almost entirely disappeared in rural Virginia. People think of the death penalty as something conservative, rural communities care about. But, actually, after the late ’90s, death sentencing in general in this country became more of a suburban luxury,” he said.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the DPIC, said, “The 2018 data dramatically demonstrates the significance of the death penalty’s decline.”
The report said there are 30 states with the death penalty, plus the federal government and the military. Earlier this year, Washington became the 20th state to abolish the death penalty, the center said.
Also cited in the report was an October Gallup poll that found fewer than half of Americans think the death penalty is applied fairly, the lowest level since the question was first asked in 2000.
Defenders of capital punishment have said that the drop in death sentences can be explained largely by the drop in murders. Also contributing are U.S. Supreme Court decisions barring death for those who kill while younger than 18 or for those who have been found to be intellectually disabled.
Some appeals courts in the country often prevent executions from being carried out, discouraging prosecutors from seeking them, say proponents of capital punishment.
The last person sentenced to die in Virginia, Mark E. Lawlor, had the sentence sent back to lower court by the 4th U.S. Court of Appeals, which ruled it was flawed. Lawlor, 53, was convicted of the 2008 capital murder and rape of a Fairfax County woman.
The two other inmates on Virginia’s death row are Thomas A. Porter, 43, and Anthony Juniper, 47, both sentenced to death in Norfolk.
The last two executions in Virginia occurred last year: Ricky Javon Gray, for murdering a South Richmond family in 2006, and William Morva, who murdered two law enforcement officers in Montgomery County in 2006.