- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2000

A group of black lawmakers, taking advantage of national attention on the death penalty, called on Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III yesterday to halt executions and appoint a commission to study the fairness of Virginia's death-penalty process.

But the governor's spokesman said the governor has confidence in the appeals process and clemency system, and doesn't think a moratorium or study is necessary.

Delegate Jerrauld C. Jones, Norfolk Democrat and chairman of the 14-member Legislative Black Caucus, wrote a four-page letter to the governor citing recent studies that show Virginia executes more persons per capita than any other state and has the smallest percentage of capital convictions overturned on appeal of any state. He said the studies found only 18 percent of death-penalty convictions in Virginia are overturned on appeal, while the national average is 68 percent.

Both sides draw drastically different conclusions from those numbers.

Capital-punishment defenders say it shows Virginia is doing a good job in providing defendants a thorough defense in the first place.

But opponents like Mr. Jones say it's just the opposite. They simply can't believe Virginia is doing that good a job of weeding out bad cases at the beginning, especially considering how many people it puts to death.

The studies pointed to lawyers' incompetence and police suppression of exculpatory evidence as the biggest reasons for erroneous convictions.

"Virginia is no different than any of its sister states that are having these problems," Mr. Jones said.

After Illinois' Republican governor declared a moratorium on executions in January, death-penalty opponents called on Mr. Gilmore to do the same.

In February, Virginia lawmakers debated, but ultimately shot down, a plan to allow capital-case convicts more than the 21 days they're currently allowed to introduce evidence on appeal that could prove they are not guilty.

During this session's debate, Mr. Gilmore, a former county prosecutor and state attorney general, said he was confident Virginia isn't executing innocent people. He said those who protest their death sentences usually do so on the basis of other circumstances like mental disability or upbringing, but don't usually claim they are innocent.

Mark A. Miner, Mr. Gilmore's spokesman, reiterated the governor's confidence in the system yesterday.

"The governor believes there are sufficient precautions already in place to deal with the issues being raised," Mr. Miner said. "These cases aren't being heard overnight. They're going on for seven or eight years."

He said Mr. Gilmore thoroughly reviews every clemency petition himself and takes each very seriously.

Every death-penalty case is automatically appealed to the state Supreme Court, and there are avenues for appeal to both state and federal courts.

Attorney General Mark L. Earley, whose office is in charge of death-penalty reviews, also expressed confidence in the system during the debate this year.

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