- The Washington Times - Friday, July 4, 2008

Kevin Green was No. 99 in May. Robert Stacy Yarbrough became No. 100 last month. And next week, Kent Jermaine Jackson stands to be No. 101.

The number of Virginia inmates executed in the modern era ranks second in the country, but the pace of scheduled deaths has slowed in recent years. That has spurred hope among opponents of the death penalty that it could eventually be phased out, while proponents say support for capital punishment remains strong in the state.

“I can tell you this, it’s never easy to carry out the death penalty, and the death penalty should never be administered in a casual manner,” said Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican. “However, I believe that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for those who commit the most heinous crimes against society, and I believe the death penalty is still supported by the vast majority of the people of Virginia.”

Since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment as constitutional in 1976, Virginia ranks behind only Texas in enforcing the death penalty.

But after reaching highs of 13 in 1998 and 14 in 1999, the number of executions in the state has continued to drop back to those more similar to previous years: Virginia put four people to death in 2006 and executed none in 2007. Five executions were scheduled for this year after the Supreme Court ruled lethal injection constitutional in April and the state lifted a moratorium on the practice.

Observers say the slower pace in executions stems from a variety of factors. Jon Gould, director of the Center for Justice, Law and Society at George Mason University, thinks prosecutors may be more cautious in seeking the death penalty because he said the state has had 12 wrongful convictions for rape or murder since the late 1990s.

Lawmakers in 1994 also allowed juries to sentence convicts to life in prison without parole - a change former State Attorney General William G. Broaddus thinks is “the single biggest factor” in the decline of executions.

“I think that it’s a recognition that when you are a member of a jury … knowing you are going to cause a person to die is a very difficult decision for any individual to grapple with,” said Mr. Broaddus, who as attorney general from 1985 to 1986 supported the death penalty but now opposes it.

Virginia’s changing demographics and increasing lean to the left also could play a role in the declining execution rate: Residents in recent years have elected two Democratic governors in a row, allowed a Democrat to take over an incumbent Republican’s seat in the U.S. Senate and pushed Democrats into the state Senate majority.

“To some extent, if you change what the constituents believe you will get [lawmakers] who feel like they can start to take a stand against the death penalty,” said Betty Gallagher, a spokeswoman for the group Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Studies show Democrats typically oppose the death penalty in greater numbers than Republicans. A 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center found that just 14 percent of conservative Republicans oppose the death penalty, while 37 percent of moderate and conservative Democrats and 53 percent of liberal Democrats opposed it.

Gov. Tim Kaine — a Democrat who last month issued the first death sentence commutation of his tenure to convicted killer Percy Levar Walton — is a devout Roman Catholic who has said he will uphold the state’s laws but remains opposed to capital punishment.

“If the death penalty were to go away, that would be OK with him,” Kaine spokesman Gordon Hickey said.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said death sentences and executions are down by more than half across the country since 1999.

He said changes in what resources are available to death row defendants and the state’s allowance for new DNA evidence to be introduced after 21 days from sentencing have benefited inmates. But he acknowledged that Virginia’s political climate may be playing a role in reducing executions as well.

“In Northern Virginia there’s been very few death sentences, and that’s of course a large population area,” Mr. Dieter said. “I think that probably does have to do with shifting populations and shifting points of view.”

Virginia has seen its share of high-profile murder cases. In 2003, a Virginia Beach jury sentenced convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad to death. But his accomplice, juvenile Lee Boyd Malvo, was spared a similar sentence when a Chesapeake jury gave him life without parole.

A federal grand jury in Alexandria also spared convicted terrorist and 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui from the death penalty in 2006.

However, Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert — a Democrat who secured the death sentence against Muhammad — said he doubts support for capital punishment in the state has changed much in recent years.

A 2004 poll by the Center for Survey Research at Virginia Tech found that 75 percent of Virginians supported the death penalty, while 46 percent of respondents said they would support its elimination in favor of doling out alternative sentences of life without parole.

“I’ve always said the death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst, even though technically people may qualify under the statute,” said Mr. Ebert, whose tenure in Prince William County began in 1968. “I don’t take any pride in asking for the death penalty, I just think there are certain people who deserve it as a matter of justice.”

Mark Robinette, an assistant Commonwealth’s attorney in Bedford County, said support for the death penalty can vary throughout the state by jurisdiction.

“Generally speaking, particularly in your rural jurisdictions in Virginia, people are supportive of the death penalty,” Mr. Robinette said. “Some of your urban areas - it can be more split there I think.”

But Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the D.C.-based National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said the execution slowdown in Virginia and elsewhere is a good sign for death penalty opponents.

“When the public sees they can’t square the way this death penalty is working with their fundamental values of fairness, and that there are other and better ways of holding people accountable, we will see the end of the death penalty,” Ms. Rust-Tierney said.

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