The last execution of a person sentenced to die in California may have been carried out by the commonwealth of Virginia.
Alfredo Prieto, a serial killer who committed capital murders in both states, was executed by injection at Greensville Correctional Center on Oct. 1, 2015. The most recent execution carried out by the state of California was in 2006.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, D-Calif., on Wednesday declared a moratorium on capital punishment in California, which had the largest death row in the country with 737 inmates. Virginia has executed 113 people since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume in 1976, a toll second only to Texas, with 560.
A poll last year by the Pew Research Center found that 54 percent of Americans favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, and 39 percent are opposed. Nevertheless, death sentences and executions have been trending downward for years.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Wednesday that Newsom’s action “has tremendous symbolic value that adds momentum to the national trend away from capital punishment in the U.S.”
“I don’t think there’s any movement for a moratorium [in Virginia], but in part that’s because no one is being sentenced to death in Virginia these days,” Dunham said.
A spokeswoman for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam wrote in an email: “If the General Assembly passed legislation to replace the death penalty with life without parole, the governor would absolutely sign it.”
However, while Northam is personally opposed to the death penalty, the spokeswoman wrote, he has pledged to uphold Virginia’s laws, including the death penalty, as did other Democratic governors before him — Mark Warner, Tim Kaine and Terry McAuliffe.
In any case, capital punishment has slowed to a crawl in Virginia. There have been no new death sentences imposed in almost eight years. Only three inmates remain on Virginia’s death row, which once had around 60, and there are no pending execution dates.
One of the state’s three death row inmates, Mark E. Lawlor, 53, had his 2011 death sentence sent back to lower court by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled it was flawed.
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 — recently said there are a number of factors contributing to the drop in death sentences and executions in Virginia and elsewhere.
Among them is the decline in murder rates in general, better representation of defendants in capital murder trials and the growing expense of winning death sentences and then defending them through appeals, said Garrett, author of “End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice.”
Michael Stone, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said Wednesday that he did not know Northam’s position on the death penalty.
“I think the prospects of a moratorium are doubtful unless the governor sees it as an example of how he can lead on racial reconciliation, given widespread concerns about racial inequities in the application of the death penalty,” he said.
“But, who knows? We don’t have any great access to the governor. I’m just speculating here,” Stone said. His organization favors the abolition of the death penalty, not just a moratorium.
He said that in next year’s General Assembly session, the group will back an abolition bill with bipartisan support in both chambers. Stone said January’s vote in the Virginia Senate “to exempt people with severe mental illness from the death penalty is another example of this growing nationwide concern about the inequities in our death penalty system.”
Dunham said California is the fifth state to declare a moratorium on executions since 2011, joining Colorado, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington. Since 2004, seven former death penalty states have repealed their statutes or declared their statutes unconstitutional, he said.
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 were in 2017: Ricky Gray, for murdering a South Richmond family in 2006; and William Morva, who murdered two law enforcement officers in Montgomery County in 2006.