The Decline of the Virginia (and American) Death Penalty
69 Pages Posted: 17 Oct 2015 Last revised: 5 Apr 2017
Date Written: April 4, 2017
The American death penalty is disappearing. Death sentences and executions have reached the lowest levels seen in decades. Public support for the death penalty has declined. More states have abolished the death penalty or imposed de facto moratoria. Even the states formerly most aggressive in pursuit of death sentences have seen death sentences steadily decline. Take Virginia, which has the highest rate of executions of any death penalty state, and which has executed the third highest number of prisoners since the 1970s. How times have changed. There are now two or fewer trials a year in Virginia at which a judge or jury even considers imposing the death penalty. Still more surprising, over one half of those trials in Virginia now result in a life sentence (11 of 21 cases from 2005 to present at which there was a capital sentencing hearing resulted in a life sentence). Why is this happening and in Virginia of all places? In this study of the decline in the Virginia death penalty, I examine every capital trial since 2005, a group of 21 trials, and I compare those to a group of twenty capital trials from 1996 to 2004. The law on the books has not meaningfully changed in ways that would make it harder to obtain death sentences in Virginia. However, in 2004 regional capital defense resource centers were created to handle capital cases. From 1996 to 2004, the crucial sentencing phase at which the judge or jury decided whether to impose the death penalty was typically cursory, averaging less than two days long. In the more recent trials, the average was twice that — four days — and still more striking was the increase in numbers of defense witnesses called, greater use of expert witnesses, and the added complexity of sentencing proceedings. Only seven counties have imposed death sentences in the past decade in Virginia. The changed understanding of effective mitigation, together with improved defense resources, may help explain the decline. I examine additional data from North Carolina and Florida, situating the role of other factors such as national trends in homicide rates, and conclude by describing heightened Eighth Amendment concerns with the scattered state of the American death penalty.
Keywords: Death penalty, capital punishment, right to counsel, sentencing, mitigation, Eighth Amendment
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