- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2003

John Allen Muhammad can expect to be executed in about three years if he gets the death penalty following his conviction in the first Washington sniper trial.

Virginia inmates, on average, have the shortest stay on death row, when compared with condemned prisoners in the federal prison system or any other state that allows execution, according to a report released this month by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The average waiting time of three years in Virginia is one-third the national average of 9.1 years before execution, the report shows.

“Virginia, we believe, has the strongest and best capital-punishment law in the nation,” says Tim Murtaugh, spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore. “Our statute is very specific, and it’s been tested and retested all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s very sound.”

Federal death-row inmates wait an average of 4.1 years before being executed.

Death-row inmates in Washington state and Delaware had the third-shortest average waiting time to die, 5.1 years. Inmates in Tennessee and Utah wait the longest time on average, at 11.3 years.

By the end of 2002, Virginia had sent 137 convicts to death row and conducted 87 executions since 1976, when it reinstated the death penalty after a moratorium ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Those numbers put Virginia second only to Texas, which executed 289 prisoners over the same period. Death-row inmates in Texas spend an average of 7.4 years awaiting execution.

Fewer inmates in Virginia have had their convictions overturned or their sentences commuted than in any other state that has executed at least one inmate. A total of 22 of 137 inmates sentenced to death have been removed from death row since 1975, or 16 percent, compared with the national average of 36 percent.

All inmates currently on Virginia’s death row were sentenced after 1997.

A major reason for the swiftness between sentencing and execution is that Virginia’s legislature and the U.S. Supreme Court have streamlined the process for hearing appeals.

If Muhammad is sentenced to death, the state has a statutory obligation to grant him an automatic appeal at the Virginia Supreme Court.

“There’s going to be some rich grounds for appeal,” says James Oleson, a legal analyst and sociology professor at Old Dominion University.

The review would include a range of issues, such as the nature of instructions to the jury and whether the death sentence was handed down fairly, Mr. Oleson says. The court also would review issues specific to the Muhammad case, such as the first application of the state’s antiterrorism law and interpretation of the triggerman statute.

Prince William County Circuit Court Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. presided over the six-week trial in Virginia Beach. He instructed jurors that they didn’t need to find that he was the triggerman to convict him of capital murder in the Oct. 9, 2002, fatal shooting of Dean Harold Meyers. The jury on Monday found Muhammad guilty of two counts of capital murder.

The seven women and five men, scheduled to reconvene tomorrow, indicated to Judge Millette before adjourning Friday that they are split over whether to sentence Muhammad to death or life in prison without parole.

Grounds for appeal

Although Muhammad’s convictions for murder and terrorism are capital offenses, both raise significant issues for appeal, says Richard J. Bonnie, a law professor at the University of Virginia. Mr. Bonnie successfully argued to have the death sentence commuted for convicted killer Joseph Giarratano in 1991. Giarratano got life in prison instead.

The Virginia Supreme Court historically is “not very likely” to overturn a capital conviction or a death sentence, Mr. Bonnie says. There are, however, other federal petitions that can be filed.

Critics say the appeals process has been streamlined too much and that there isn’t enough opportunity for a thorough review. One problem, they say, is the “21-day rule” barring defense attorneys from introducing new evidence on appeal, except for DNA evidence, 21 days after a judge signs the sentencing order.

The American Civil Liberties Union published a report earlier this month calling for a moratorium on the death penalty until issues surrounding its use are addressed. Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, repeatedly has said that he does not support a moratorium.

It’s premature to speculate on the course of the appeals process in the Muhammad case, Mr. Bonnie says.

“The main variable is going to be what he wants to do,” he says. “There are some prisoners who, when faced with the possibility of life in prison with no possibility of parole, do not want to appeal the death sentence.”

If sentenced to death, Muhammad, 42, would become the 28th condemned prisoner on Virginia’s death row. He would be housed at the Sussex 1 State Prison in Waverly, Va., in one of 44 cells reserved for death-row inmates at the $75 million maximum-security facility, which opened in 1998.

The annual cost per prisoner is a little less than $21,000, according to 2001 figures from the Virginia Department of Corrections.

Today, Sussex 1 is home to 26 condemned men.

Teresa Lewis, who became the first woman on Virginia’s death row in more than 90 years when she was sentenced to death in June, is incarcerated at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women in Troy, Va. Lewis, 34, pleaded guilty to hiring two men to kill her husband and adult stepson in October 2002.

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Life on death row

Sussex 1 is about 50 miles south of Richmond and 35 miles northeast of the “death house” at Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Va. That’s where inmates are transferred about a week before their scheduled executions.

Since 1994, Virginia has allowed condemned inmates to choose whether they want to die by injection or electrocution. Injection is used if the prisoner declines to choose. Death-row inmates were electrocuted before 1994.

Four guard towers, manned by officers armed with rifles and shotguns, are located outside Sussex 1’s double fencing, which is topped with razor wire. An armed officer also patrols a catwalk on the roof of an adjacent building.

The 44 death-row cells are monitored from a computerized control room, where officers armed with shotguns can fire bird shot and rubber pellets from built-in gun ports.

Death-row inmates are held in solitary confinement in a cell measuring 9 feet by 8 feet. That’s only slightly bigger than the interior of the blue Chevrolet Caprice that prosecutors say Muhammad and fellow sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo drove during the shooting spree that struck the Washington area last fall.

Each cell has a stainless-steel toilet, a sink and a window measuring 40 inches by 6 inches. Inmates spend most of their time in their cells, even meals.

Corrections spokesman Larry Traylor says inmates are allowed seven hours a week outside their cells. There are no group activities.

Lights in the cells are not turned off for security reasons, although it is possible to dim them, Mr. Traylor says. Inmates are allowed to keep preapproved personal items, such as a small television, games, photographs, books, magazines, a Walkman-type radio, grooming products and some food.

Inmates eat regular food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Vegetarian meals are available upon request.

During weekdays, inmates may visit with a chaplain, religious volunteers, their attorneys, a doctor, a nurse, a psychologist or a barber.

Inmates are allowed to use money in their prison accounts to purchase games and food from the commissary or order, through a pre-approved vendor, a limited number of books, magazines or newspapers. Mail is delivered at night after being opened and searched for contraband. Inmates have no access to the Internet.

Inmates’ other privileges include being allowed to make telephone calls and have noncontact visits for up to one hour on weekends and state holidays. They also are allowed to have contact visits with immediate family members once every 90 days.

Three times a week, inmates have two-hour, individual recreation sessions outdoors in an 8-foot-by-20-foot cage. They then may take a 15-minute shower.

An inmate may lose visitation privileges or recreation time for committing an infraction.

Condemned teens

Death-row inmates do not get on-site educational or training programs, Mr. Traylor says, although they may receive permission to participate in correspondence courses. Several may be employed as “housemen,” who are responsible for the cleanliness of the wing, or as barbers.

Mr. Traylor declines to discuss any special arrangements in the event that Mr. Malvo is convicted, sentenced to death and sent to the same facility as Muhammad.

Mr. Malvo, 18, is on trial in Chesapeake, Va., on capital-murder charges. If convicted and sentenced to die in the sniper shootings, he would be the fifth teenager on Virginia’s death row in modern times.

Juveniles as young as 16 at the time of their offense can be tried for a capital offense and sentenced to death.

Chauncey Jackson, who was 16 when he fatally shot another teen during a robbery in Norfolk, was on death row until his conviction was overturned. The state did not pursue the death penalty at Jackson’s second trial.

In January 2000, the state executed Douglas Christopher Thomas, 26, for the 1990 slayings of his girlfriend’s parents. Thomas was 17 when he committed the crimes.

The same month, the state executed Steven Edward Roach, 23, for the 1993 fatal shooting of a 70-year-old neighbor. Roach was 17 at the time of the murder.

In October 1998, Dwayne Allen Wright, 24, was executed for raping and killing a 34-year-old Alexandria woman in 1989 and for killing two other persons. He was 17 at the time of the slayings.

Housing a high-profile prisoner such as Muhammad would not require additional precautions, Mr. Traylor says.

“Every death-row inmate is a high-profile case in some part of Virginia, if not nationally,” he says. “We’re used to dealing with that.”

One was Mir Aimal Kasi, whose case drew worldwide attention after he was convicted in November 1997 for fatally shooting two CIA employees outside the agency’s Langley headquarters in July 1993. Kasi was sentenced to death in January 1998 and executed in November 2002.

There would be no special precautions to protect Muhammad from other inmates, Mr. Traylor adds.

“This is less of a concern with death-row inmates because death row is a highly controlled environment,” he says. “Death-row inmates are already housed in single cells and not allowed to congregate.”

Death-row history

Virginia’s death row has existed for almost 100 years.

The state’s first execution after the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 took place in 1982, when a former police officer, Frank Coppola, was put to death for the 1978 robbing and beating death of Muriel Hatchell in Newport News.

Since 1982, Virginia has executed 44 white men, 42 black men and one foreign national, Kasi.

The death row opened at the state penitentiary in Richmond in 1908, when the state took over the job of executioner from local sheriffs.

In 1979, it was moved to the Mecklenburg Correctional Center, which five years later was the scene of the country’s largest death-row breakout.

On May 31, 1984, six inmates armed with homemade knives and wearing stolen guard uniforms tricked their way to freedom in a prison van. Authorities captured them within a month. All six have been executed.

The last prisoner executed by Virginia was Bobby Wayne Swisher, 27, who died by injection in July. He was convicted in 1997 of abducting, raping and slitting the throat of Shenandoah Valley florist Dawn McNees Snyder earlier that year, then dumping her body in the South River.

No executions are currently scheduled.

Final minutes

Only three inmates have chosen electrocution instead of lethal injection since 1994, when the state decided to allow a choice.

The latest, Earl Bramblett, said he chose electrocution to protest what he called his wrongful conviction. His decision came only days before he was put to death in April. Bramblett was convicted of killing a family of four in Roanoke County in 1994.

One death-row inmate at Sussex 1 killed himself. David Overton, 21, was found dead in his cell in March 2001 after overdosing on two prescription antidepressants. Overton had been on death row since November 1999 for robbing and fatally stabbing quadriplegic Edgar Allen Williams, 63, in Chesterfield County earlier that year.

Inmates are moved to the death house at Jarratt several days prior to their scheduled execution.

Minutes before a execution by injection, the prisoner is strapped to a gurney. A member of the execution team places heart monitors on the inmate’s chest. Two needles — one is a backup — are inserted into usable veins, usually in the arm.

Long tubes connect the needle to several intravenous drips through a hole in a cement block wall. The first is a saline solution, started immediately. At the warden’s signal, a curtain is raised to expose the inmate to witnesses in an adjoining room.

The inmate is injected with sodium thiopental, an anesthetic, which puts him to sleep. Next flows pavulon or pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes the muscles and stops the breathing. Finally, the flow of potassium chloride stops the heart.

The inmate, who is unconscious, dies from anesthetic overdose and respiratory and cardiac arrest. A doctor certifies the death.

S.A. Miller contributed to this report.


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