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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Death-Penalty Reform Falls Short in Va., Study Finds

This article appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on October 14, 2006:

Death-penalty reform falls short in Va., study finds

BY Frank Green
Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

A new study by an anti-capital punishment group contends Virginia needs to do much more to prevent innocent people from being put to death.

"Virginia came perilously close to that with the scheduled execution of Earl Washington Jr.," who was pardoned as a result of DNA testing in 2000, said Jack Payden-Travers, director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Payden-Travers, noting Virginia has executed 97 people since the death penalty was allowed to resume in 1976, said, "It's time for Virginia to look once again at what we have done in the last 30 years."

The study, released Thursday, was performed by more than a dozen volunteer lawyers headed by Joseph D. Tydings, a former U.S. senator from Maryland. They looked at Virginia's laws and policies to see if they complied with 85 recommended reforms for Illinois' justice system.

In 2000, after 13 wrongfully convicted people had been freed from Illinois' death row, then-Gov. George Ryan created a commission to study the problem. The recommendations were the result of that two-year effort.

The study released this week found that Virginia "completely fails" to satisfy more than half of those recommendations such as requiring police to videotape interrogations in murder cases -- partially satisfies 31 percent of them and satisfies 14 percent.

Jane Bohman, director of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said in a phone interview that roughly a third of the recommended reforms have been adopted there. "We haven't done very well, either," she said.

William G. Broaddus, a former Virginia attorney general who appeared with Payden-Travers, said the state has made progress in recent years in reforms that will help prevent wrongful death sentences.

"But much remains to be done," he said. "Hopefully, this will be a platform for the General Assembly, the courts and the executive branch to continue . . . the progress that has been made," Broaddus said.

J. Tucker Martin, spokesman for Attorney General Bob McDonnell, said in an e-mail that death-penalty law in Virginia has broad public and legal support for good reasons.

"Built into the system are numerous safeguards and opportunities for a defendant to challenge his sentence. And the governor has the ability to grant clemency at any time after the trial," Martin said.

Virginia's death-penalty law has been repeatedly upheld by the Virginia Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.

"As this conversation moves forward, no one should forget the voices we will not hear from: the innocent individuals who have had their lives ended by cold-blooded murderers," Martin said.
But Payden-Travers said, "We know that mistakes are made, that wrongful convictions come about. There are a number of cases in Virginia that are questionable . . . among those who have been executed."

While DNA testing freed Washington, it also drove the final nails in the coffin of Roger Keith Coleman, executed 14 years ago for a 1981 rape and murder in Grundy. Some death-penalty opponents argued Coleman was innocent until DNA testing conclusively proved his guilt this year.

In May, Washington won a $2.25 million verdict against the estate of a former Virginia State Police investigator. The jury held the investigator fed details of the crime to Washington, who falsely confessed -- a case where videotaping could have resolved any controversy.

Ironically, Broaddus headed the legal team that defended the estate of the investigator, Curtis Reese Wilmore.

The report also criticized the state for having too many crimes for which the death penalty could be imposed. The report said, the state should be trimming the list of capital crimes.

But Martin said, "Our statute is very narrowly defined, with only the most egregious crimes making someone eligible for the death penalty."

The study also recommended the barring of uncorroborated testimony of jailhouse snitches as the sole basis for conviction in a death-penalty case, as well as the prohibiting of convictions based on the testimony of a single eyewitness or accomplice.

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