- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Use of the death penalty in the United States is at a 20-year low — a trend evidenced in Virginia, which was once entrenched behind only Texas in its use of capital punishment, but where no inmates were executed and no death sentences handed down this year.

The restraint in Virginia’s use of executions means the state, renowned for the speed and efficiency of prosecutions and appeals in capital cases, was surpassed by Oklahoma this year in the total number of death sentences carried out, according to data compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Virginia has executed 110 convicts since 1976 — the year the Supreme Court reaffirmed the legality of the death penalty after having placed an effective moratorium on capital punishment in 1972.

The state now ranks third in the country in the number of executions overall after Oklahoma, which put three people to death this year, bringing the total number of those executed in the state to 111. Texas, with 518 executions — including 10 this year — continues to lead the nation.

Fewer executions are taking place, and they are occurring in an increasingly smaller number of states, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Thirty-five people were executed in just seven states this year, and a total of 72 death sentences were handed down by 19 states and the federal government — the lowest number in 40 years.

The number of yearly executions peaked nationwide in 1999, with 98 convicts put to death. Eighteen states and the District have abolished the death penalty, while it remains legal in 32 states, according to the center.

Oklahoma, Ohio and Arizona put capital punishment cases on hold this year after botched executions. Concern over the drugs used in lethal injections and skepticism that innocent people could be executed have led to fewer cases in which prosecutors seek the ultimate sanction, Mr. Dieter said.

“Everyone is more skittish or cautious about the death penalty,” Mr. Dieter said. “Juries demand more evidence. They are more hesitant to give the death penalty. Prosecutors know that, so they are seeking it less.”

The same goes for Virginia, which has executed only five people since 2010.

“This was a state that, for many years, was strongly committed and is now much less committed [to use of the death penalty],” Mr. Dieter said. “They are not going to go through all that trouble and end up with a life sentence anyhow.”

The sentiment seemed to be on display this year, when prosecutors charged Charles Severance in three Alexandria homicides that span back to 2003, but indicated that they would not seek the death penalty. Mr. Severance was charged with capital murder in two of the three slayings. Prosecutors have declined to discuss the reasons why they would not opt for capital punishment.

Eight people remain on death row in Virginia.

“Virginia shows, at this point, no signs of wanting to escalate the death penalty,” Mr. Dieter said. “I think there will be more states over time that would surpass Virginia.”

Just five death sentences were carried out under the administration of Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican and former prosecutor and attorney general. That number is the lowest of any Virginia administration since the 1980s and less than half the 11 executions performed under Mr. McDonnell’s predecessor, Democrat Tim Kaine, an opponent of capital punishment who defended death row inmates as a pro bono lawyer.

No executions have taken place under Gov. Terry McAuliffe, and the issue did not come up during the Democrat’s 2013 campaign.

Asked whether Mr. McAuliffe would consider commutation of a death sentence, a spokeswoman remained vague.

“Gov. McAuliffe would review each situation carefully and, when determined appropriate, would carry out his duties as chief executive of the commonwealth,” spokeswoman Rachel Thomas said.

Mr. Kaine, whose opposition to the death penalty was well-known, commuted one death sentence, but opponents of capital punishment suspect that, without strong opposition to the practice, it will be unlikely that Mr. McAuliffe would seek to end it.

“Even Tim Kaine, the last Democratic governor, who was openly opposed to capital punishment, said at the same time he would carry out the law, and he did,” said Stephen Northup, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. “I would not expect Terry McAuliffe to be any different than that.”

The fact that Mr. McAuliffe wasn’t forced to speak more decisively on the issue during his campaign “speaks to the lessening relevancy that the death penalty has in Virginia,” Mr. Dieter said. “Crime in general is down, and it is not the burning issue.”

Trailing behind Virginia in the number of inmates executed is Florida, with eight this year and 89 overall, and Missouri, with 10 executions this year and 80 total.

Missouri was one of the few states that bucked the trend of decreases, reporting a record high number of executions in the state. But Mr. Dieter noted that no convicts received death sentences this year, a sign that the state may eventually slow its rate of executions. Thirty-nine people remain on the state’s death row.

While no death sentences were handed down in Virginia this year, two were given in Oklahoma — an indication that Virginia’s downward trend could continue.

If states that have paused executions amid concerns about their lethal injection protocols settle those issues, Mr. Dieter said, there could be a national uptick in executions next year as cases put on hold this year move forward.

In Maryland, which abolished use of the death penalty last year, four men remain on death row. Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, will be leaving office next month as Republican Larry Hogan is sworn in. It remains to be seen whether Mr. O’Malley, who signed the state’s death penalty ban into law, will commute the sentences of the men who remain on death row.

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler filed a brief in November with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals supporting attorneys for one death row inmate, Jody Lee Miles, who say his death sentence is illegal because the state no longer has a death penalty statute. The court is still weighing the case.

A spokesman for Mr. O’Malley said Tuesday that no decision had been made on whether any of the four inmates’ sentences will be commuted. But early Wednesday, officials announced that Mr. O’Malley would commute the sentences of the remaining four inmates on death row.

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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