- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2000

RICHMOND The Virginia House of Delegates has approved a whole new avenue of appeals to convicts who are sentenced to death.

Under the bill, which passed 73-25 and now goes to the Senate, those sentenced to death will have up to three years after sentencing to file a court case arguing they have found new exculpatory evidence. Currently, the law allows for filing up to 21 days after conviction.

Proponents of the bill say it would ensure innocent persons are not executed. Opponents say it will just add years of appeals onto death penalty cases to no benefit, because there is no evidence Virginia has wrongly executed anyone.

Both Gov. James S. Gilmore III and Attorney General Mark L. Earley told The Washington Times in brief interviews yesterday that the bill isn't needed.

"In my mind, in Virginia, the system is working," Mr. Earley said.

The attorney general said that if the bill passes, every lawyer for a person sentenced to death would file cases under the provisions. And those lawyers who don't file would give their clients grounds for arguing the lawyer was incompetent and to demand another delay and trial, Mr. Earley said.

"There is no question it will be a delay. How long, it's hard to say, but it could add in my opinion another three or four years to death-penalty appeals," Mr. Earley said.

"I think a lot of people supporting this bill haven't realized the increase in pain for victims' families," he said.

But the bill's supporters say concerns over delays carry little weight with a person's life hanging in the balance.

"The idea that we're going to rush closure because of money or that we're going to rush closure for the idea that we take an eye for an eye is not something we should be doing," said Delegate Vivian Watts, Fairfax Democrat.

This is the first time the bill has passed the House.

But this time, instead of asking for an unlimited filing period, the committee approved the three-year window. The evidence would have to be new, the defendant would have to be able to prove he had just discovered the evidence and not sat on it at trial, and the evidence would have to be sufficiently convincing on its face for a judge to review it.

"I voted last year, no. This year, I'm going to vote yes. It's not a perfect world that we live in… . If I think for one moment that we save someone's life who was innocent by extending the time one or two years, I think that's the least we can do as human beings," said Delegate S. Chris Jones, Suffolk Republican.

The debate in Virginia's assembly comes on the heels of a decision by Illinois' governor to put a moratorium on executions. Gov. George Ryan, a Republican and death-penalty supporter, recently announced he will suspend the state's death penalty because he can't be sure those on death row are truly guilty of the crimes they were convicted of.

Death-penalty opponents wrote to Mr. Gilmore asking him to follow suit, but he declined.

Death-penalty supporters say there is a key difference between Illinois and Virginia. Illinois has seen several death-penalty convictions thrown out recently because the wrong man was convicted.

"We rarely, rarely get [claims] of innocence, though some do, but usually in the face of overwhelming evidence," Mr. Gilmore said. Rather, those who seek clemency from the governor claim extenuating circumstances, such as having been a juvenile at the time of the crime.

But Delegate Clifton A. "Chip" Woodrum, Roanoke Democrat, said the bill should be even more important for death-penalty supporters, because nothing is more likely to put an end to the state's death penalty than if an innocent person is executed.

Mr. Earley pointed to the process of death-penalty convictions as adequate defense against convicting the wrong person. There is, he said, the initial trial before a judge or jury, automatic appeal to the state Supreme Court, and usually a review by two intermediate federal appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. There also are habeas corpus appeals available, he said.

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