- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 30, 2005

RICHMOND — Gov. Mark Warner’s decision to spare Robin Lovitt’s life means that for the first time since 1983, Virginia will go an entire calendar year without executing anyone.

Virginia has put 94 men to death since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. Only Texas, at 355, has executed more.

Lovitt’s execution would have been the 1,000th nationally since 1976 had Mr. Warner, a Democrat, not commuted the sentence to life in prison without parole Tuesday. The 1,000th distinction now seems likely to go to Kenneth Lee Boyd, whose execution is set for 2 a.m. tomorrow in North Carolina.

Execution dates have not been set for Virginia’s remaining 22 death row inmates, ensuring that the string of years with at least one execution will end at 21, said a spokesmen for the Department of Corrections and the attorney general’s office.

Eileen Addison, president of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth Attorneys, said federal and state reforms in 1995 and 1996 allowed the state to begin executing more people than it was sending to death row. Virginia’s death row population peaked at 58 a decade ago.



“We’ve eliminated the backlog,” said Miss Addison, the chief prosecutor for York County and Poquoson. “There are fewer people at the end of the appellate process.”

From 1982 to 1989, Virginia had six years with one execution each. The pace gradually increased, reaching a high of 14 in 1999, then slowed again. There were five executions last year.

Steven D. Benjamin of Richmond, past president of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, agreed that the appellate reforms have led to more efficiency.

Although some states have prisoners languish on death row for 20 years or longer, he said, anyone sentenced to death in Virginia is virtually assured of execution within five years. The perception that criminals have endless appeals is a myth in Virginia, Mr. Benjamin said.

He also said parole abolition in 1994 has had an effect. Before then, juries were more inclined to choose death because they feared a life sentence would be sharply reduced by parole, he said. Now they are being told that life in prison means just that.

“Now that juries can be assured that person will not get out, they feel more comfortable rejecting the ultimate penalty,” he said.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in the District, said the number of death sentences is declining nationally as well. He said the use of DNA evidence to exonerate wrongfully convicted people has helped reduce public support for the death penalty from 80 percent in 1994 to 64 percent as per a Gallup poll in October.

Mr. Benjamin said exonerations also have made juries more cautious. He cited the case of Earl Washington Jr., who was pardoned after DNA evidence proved him innocent of the murder and rape charges that resulted in his death sentence in Virginia.

“Thinking Virginians understand that no system is perfect, and we’ve come awfully close to making an irreparable mistake,” Mr. Benjamin said.

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