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Legal team identifies improvements and reforms for death penalty system in Virginia


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Legal team identifies improvements and reforms for death penalty system in Virginia

By John Glynn

Highlighting both recent improvements and serious areas of concern, a comprehensive assessment of Virginia’s capital punishment system that was released today aims to better ensure fairness and accuracy in the state’s death penalty system. 

The two-year review — sponsored by the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Due Process Review Project and released at a press conference at Virginia’s State Capitol —concludes that the death penalty in Virginia must be reserved for a narrow category of the worst offenders and offenses and that every effort must be made to ensure heightened due process and minimize the risk of executing the innocent.

The review was conducted by an eight-member, Virginia-based assessment team, which includes a former trial judge, state legislators, former and current prosecutors, defense attorneys and academics. It is one of 12 comprehensive state reviews sponsored by the ABA’s Death Penalty Due Process Review Project over the past decade (assessments also have been conducted in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Tennessee). The Virginia assessment will be followed by a review of Texas’ death penalty system, which is expected to be released in mid-September.

“The ABA is committed to ensuring due process under the law for every American. Too often, when it comes to the ways in which the death penalty is imposed in this country, fairness is neither assured nor implied. Unfortunately, many states are not minimizing the risk of executing the innocent,” ABA President James R. Silkenat said. “Comprehensive assessments, like the one conducted recently in Virginia concerning its death penalty practices, give states a needed starting point in looking at any problems inherent in their administration of capital punishment — and ultimately addressing any existing obstacles to due process and justice.”

The assessments aim to give states an objective instrument to evaluate the administration of the death penalty, based on uniform benchmarks. The Virginia assessment examines 12 aspects of death penalty administration, from arrest to execution. The report highlights recent improvements in the system and identifies areas of concern, all of which are considered critical to ensuring fundamental fairness in death penalty cases. Some of these areas include:

  • Law enforcement implementation of best practices to reduce wrongful convictions.
  • Better preservation of biological evidence and access to testing for those under a death sentence.
  • Expanded discovery in death penalty cases.
  • Improved comprehension of instructions for jurors who serve on death penalty cases.
  • Better processes to exclude those with mental retardation and severe mental illness from the death penalty.
  • Relaxing of strict rules placed on appellate review of death penalty cases.

“We all want a system in Virginia that is both fair and reduces the risk — to the extent possible — of wrongful conviction or execution,” said John Douglass, chair of the Virginia assessment team and dean emeritus at the University of Richmond School of Law. “As long as Virginia implements the death penalty, everyone in the legal community, from judges to prosecutors to defense attorneys, has a vested interest in a system where such cases are administered in a fair and impartial manner, in accordance with due process.”

The full report and executive summary are available here.

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