Half of Virginia’s death row inmates will have their cases argued before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this month, but that should not tax the Richmond-based court — there are only two of them.
Virginia’s death row population peaked in 1995 at 57 or 58 inmates. Today there are just four, the fewest since July 1979, not long after Virginia law was changed enabling resumption of the death penalty after it was halted across the country by a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Now, after 113 executions, a handful of commutations, court actions, deaths while awaiting execution, a steep drop in homicides, the advent of true life sentences and other factors, Virginia’s death row is the smallest it has been in almost four decades.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976 under rewritten state laws, only Texas, with 543, has carried out more executions than Virginia. Of 31 states with a death penalty, as of April, only six had smaller death rows. California has the country’s largest, with 744 inmates.
While executions continue to be carried out in Virginia — there were two this year, Ricky Gray and William Morva — there have been no new faces on Virginia’s death row in more than five years.
Thomas Porter, 41, and Anthony Juniper, 45, both sentenced to death in Norfolk, are set to argue their appeals on Sept. 12 and Sept. 15 respectively. Also on death row are Mark Lawlor, 52, sentenced to death in Fairfax County, and William Burns, 51, sentenced to death in Shenandoah County, but held to be incompetent since 2011.
State Del. Rob Bell, R-Charlottesville, the chairman of the Virginia State Crime Commission, said one reason there are fewer death sentences today is that they have become more difficult to obtain.
“The groups opposed to the death penalty have made it such an arduous endeavor for prosecutors ... from a resource perspective, to give a case all the time and energy that it would require to see through to a successful capital case prosecution,” Bell said.
Bell said in many smaller localities, “You have prosecutors’ offices that have three or four people and ... you’d have to pull off of everything else that happens.” He said, “I think that’s part of the scenario, it’s part of what drives it.”
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center and a critic of the way the death penalty has been carried out, agrees it is now more difficult to win a death sentence in Virginia but for good reason. Among other things, he said, Virginia now has regional capital defenders, “which means defendants get much better representation than they used to get at trial. That has made a big difference.”
And Virginia juries are now told that a life sentence means life without parole, something that had not been done before September 1999. That has also had an effect, he said. People convicted of capital murder in Virginia can be sentenced to death or life in prison.
Also, Dunham said, “murder rates are near historic lows, so you don’t have the level of fear and political pandering on crime that you had in 1980s and 1990s.”
Dunham said public support for the death penalty has dropped. A national Gallup poll last year found that although 60 percent of respondents said they support the death penalty and 37 percent said the opposed it, the support level was the lowest since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in November 1972.
Although no new death sentence has been imposed in Virginia in the last five years, in the preceding five years, from 2007 to 2011, six death sentences were imposed; from 2002 to 2006, 14 death sentences; and from 1997 to 2001, 32 death sentences, he said.
“There has been a complete sea change in attitudes and practices during that time,” Dunham said.
He said legislators and prosecutors are more committed to upholding existing death sentences and carrying out executions of those already sentenced to death than they are to committing decades of new resources to obtaining and carrying out new death sentences.
“When you add a dwindling death row to the equation, you begin to have a political environment in which abolition of capital punishment no longer seems like a far-fetched notion,” Dunham said.
The Virginia Department of Corrections could not confirm that the state’s death row population peaked at 58 in 1995, as has been reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, which had figures at certain points each year back to 1981, says Virginia had 57 on death row as of Oct. 31, 1995, the highest number it recorded in Virginia at any one time.
The Department of Corrections said the last time Virginia had four inmates on death row was in early July 1979. A fifth was added shortly after.