- The Washington Times - Monday, December 31, 2001

RICHMOND (AP) Virginia executed two men this year, the fewest since 1984.
The state executed 14 men in 1999, and eight were put to death in 2000.
The reason for the drop is simple, said Randy Davis, spokesman for the Virginia attorney general's office. In 2001, only one Virginia death-row inmate, Christopher Beck, completed all of his state and federal appeals. He was executed on Oct. 18.
Another condemned killer, Thomas Akers, waived his appeals and was put to death on March 1. Walter Mickens, the senior man on Virginia's death row, was to have been executed, but the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear his appeal.
This year's decrease is consistent with the national trend. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics figures show that 66 inmates were put to death in 2001, down from 85 in 2000, and 98 in 1999.
It marks the first time since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 that the number of executions across the country has declined two years in a row.
Virginia had record numbers of executions for several years in the mid- to late-1990s because of a bulge of cases that came through the appeals process once new state and federal laws took effect that sped up the process.
Critics contend that the faster process has risked error and less-than-thorough reviews of cases by appeals courts. Only in the past year or two have appeals courts begun taking harder looks at cases, perhaps in light of highly publicized cases of wrongful convictions and death sentences nationally.
Earlier this year, former Virginia death-row inmate Earl Washington Jr. was freed on a gubernatorial pardon after a new DNA test cleared him of a 1982 rape and murder.
Because of the relatively large number of executions through last year, Virginia's death-row population, once 60 inmates, is now less than 30. The state has executed 83 men since 1976, second to Texas, which has carried out 256 executions.
Nationally, the Death Penalty Information Center's 2001 year-end report found that in addition to the 22 percent decline in executions, there has been a drop in public support for capital punishment.
Richard C. Dieter, the center's executive director, noted that Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were among those urging a closer scrutiny of capital punishment in 2001. These concerns prompted lawmakers in nearly every state retaining the death penalty to consider a variety of reform bills.
Also this year, five states banned the execution of the mentally retarded, and 17 states acted to provide greater opportunity for post-conviction DNA testing.
Stephen B. Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights and a capital punishment foe, said he believes courts "have been more careful in the last couple of years after throwing caution to the wind in 1998 and 1999."
"People all are for executions in the abstract, but when the pace of executions really picks up, as it did in Louisiana several years ago, and in Texas and Virginia more recently, people are uncomfortable with it and put the brakes on," he said.

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