- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Once entrenched as second only to Texas in its use of the death penalty, Virginia has dramatically scaled back the number of executions it has performed in recent years — a trend that seems unlikely to change amid a national downturn in the use of capital punishment.

Virginia carried out the death penalty in just one case this year, after no one was put to death last year.

Overall, the United States this year recorded the second fewest number of executions since 1995, with 39 inmates put to death as of Thursday, according to figures compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center. Nine states have carried out executions in 2013, and no more are expected before the end of the year.

In Virginia, once renowned for the speed and efficiency of prosecutions and appeals in capital cases, the steep drop in executions is more pronounced.

Just five death sentences have been carried out under Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican and a former prosecutor and attorney general. That number is the lowest of any Virginia administration since the 1980s and less than half the 11 executions performed under Mr. McDonnell’s predecessor, Democrat Tim Kaine — an opponent of capital punishment who defended death row inmates as a pro-bono lawyer.

Virginia has executed 110 convicts since 1976 — the year the Supreme Court reaffirmed legality of the death penalty after having placed an effective moratorium on capital punishment in 1972.

Since then, the number of yearly executions peaked nationwide in 1999 with 98 convicts put to death.

That same year, 14 death sentences were carried out in Virginia under Gov. James S. Gilmore III. His administration oversaw 37 executions.

Now, with declining rates of violent crime across the nation and a shifting political landscape in the state, Virginia could soon be overtaken in the total number of executions.

Texas again led the country with the most executions, this year putting to death 16 convicts — one more than last year. Oklahoma carried out six executions this year and last year, leading to a total of 108 executions since 1976, according to the center.

“They will surpass Virginia,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “Virginia has been a strong change. I think at some point the debate might be, ‘If we aren’t using it, why have it on the books?’” he said. “But that’s down the road a bit in Virginia.”

Mr. Dieter said crime has become less of a priority for the public since the 1990s and the death penalty has become “less relevant” as a result.

He also said prosecutors know the difficulty of securing a death penalty conviction in Northern Virginia, a densely populated Democratic enclave in the D.C. suburbs.

Stephen A. Northup, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said he thinks the main reason the number of executions has fallen off is the creation of the Capital Defender Office — a branch of the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission created in 2004 that oversees and maintains standards for public defender offices that handle capital cases.

“Capital defendants began to get good, effective, knowledgeable capital defenders and it’s a lot harder for prosecutors to win those cases now than they used to be,” Mr. Northup said.

Others say the reduction in executions is simply an effect of having fewer cases eligible for the death penalty.

“It’s because the murder rate is down,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director at the California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports the death penalty.

“Also, prosecutors nationwide are being more selective in when they seek it — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Mr. Scheidegger said, adding that supporters of capital punishment think the measure should be reserved for the worst crimes.

The number of death sentences issued across the nation increased from 77 last year to 80 this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Activists note that the number of death sentences remains far lower than the national peak of 315 sentences issued in 1996 and 1994.

Support for the death penalty also may have waned as politicians face difficult questions about exonerated inmates and the regulation of drugs used for lethal injections, Mr. Dieter said.

“It used to be a wedge issue. You could use it to isolate your opponent,” he said.

Capital punishment was absent from the Virginia governor’s race, in which Democrat Terry McAuliffe defeated Republican Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II. Mr. McAuliffe has likened his views on the subject to those of former Gov. Mark R. Warner, who was not a death penalty proponent but insisted that he would enforce state law. Eleven executions were carried out during Mr. Warner’s term.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, made the death penalty a central issue of his agenda, winning a repeal of the law this year in his second term after two unsuccessful attempts during his first term.

“The fact that he made it an issue and took that chance and to see it succeed, for better or for worse, that will be an issue for him,” Mr. Dieter said of Mr. O’Malley, who is thought to be considering a run for president.

Seventeen other states have abolished capital punishment. Mr. Dieter said he expected one or two more states — perhaps Delaware, Colorado or New Hampshire — to attempt to abolish the death penalty next year.

The center also noted that finding a consistent means of carrying out executions has been an ongoing problem. Many drugs used in lethal injections are manufactured in Europe, where opposition to the death penalty has resulted in a ban on exporting drugs for executions.

California, North Carolina and Arkansas have not executed a prisoner in more than seven years in part because of their inability to settle on a lethal injection protocol, the center said in its report. Federal executions are on hold for the same reason.

Mr. Northup said it was unclear whether Virginia had experienced any issues obtaining drugs used in lethal injections. The last man executed in the state, Robert Gleason Jr., was put to death by electric chair.

Gleason was serving a life term for murder in May 2009 when he killed his cellmate and then another inmate a year later. He waived his appeals, insisting he deserved to die.