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April 17, 2016

An interesting perspective on Virginia's recent capital experiences

Virginia made capital headlines last week after Gov. Terry McAuliffe altered a bill passed by the state's legislature calling for use of the electric chair if the state could not obtain need lethal drugs.  The headline of this Washington Post piece from last week explains his proposed alternative approach: "In a move that could jeopardize executions, McAuliffe wants to shield the identity of makers of lethal-injection drugs."

Meanwhile, this new commentary by Kerry Dougherty, a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot, provides some perspective on this execution method brouhaha and Virginia's recent experience with the death penalty. The piece is headlined "Lost in all the death-penalty drug talk is that there are only 7 men on death row in Virginia," and here are excerpts:

Last winter, state legislators came up with a solution: They said that if drugs are unavailable, the commonwealth should fire up Old Sparky.  Predictably, this sparked a heated debate among politicians. Some argued that the electric chair is cruel.

Others shrugged, saying painless deaths are not the goal of the state.  “I hear, ‘Oh my Lord, he might have to suffer,’ ” said the Senate’s Democratic leader, Richard Saslaw in March. “… If we don’t have the necessary drugs, then we need this bill.  When you commit acts like that, you give up your right, as far as I’m concerned, to say, ‘Well, I want to die humanely.’ ”

The governor seems to disagree.  “We take human beings, we strap them into a chair, and then we flood their bodies with 1,800 volts of electricity, subjecting them to unspeakable pain until they die,” McAuliffe said last week, according to news reports.  “Virginia citizens do not want their commonwealth to revert back to a past when excessively inhumane punishments were committed in their name.”

McAuliffe’s language calls for the state to buy the drugs needed to put prisoners to sleep from special pharmacies. The names of those companies would be cloaked in secrecy, as they are in some other states.  “All I’m doing today is providing a humane way to carry out capital punishment here in Virginia so we have options,” McAuliffe said. “If they do not take it up, I want to be clear, they will be ending capital punishment here in Virginia.”

Now the question becomes, should the people’s business be conducted covertly?  I can answer that: No, it shouldn’t.

Lost in all this talk about how to kill the last men on Virginia’s death row is the happy fact that there are just seven men living there. Seven.  According to an NBC news report, Virginia’s death row was at its most crowded in 1995 when it housed 57 condemned prisoners.  Both executions and death sentences have dropped sharply since then.

The ultimate penalty is imposed on those who commit the most heinous crimes.  Last year, for instance, Virginia executed one man: The loathsome Alfredo Prieto.  He killed a young couple in Fairfax in 1988, raping one of the victims as she died. The Washington Post reported that he had killed as many as seven others. One of those murders was of a 15-year-old in California while he was on the run after the double homicide in Fairfax.

I couldn’t gin up any sympathy for this predator.  Neither could the governor, who refused to block his execution in October. Yet Prieto was the first man executed in the Old Dominion in more than two years.

Why all the empty cells on death row?  Many reasons. But one component is certainly 1995’s “truth-in-sentencing” law pushed by then-Gov. George Allen.  The measure abolished parole and closed the revolving doors on Virginia’s prisons. Suddenly a 10-year sentence meant the convict would spend most of a decade in prison. And a life sentence? It actually meant life in prison.

Given this ironclad alternative to execution, it’s become rare for a Virginia jury — or judge — to send a convict to death row. Before we get back to arguing about the death penalty, can’t we all agree that’s a good thing?

April 17, 2016 at 09:09 PM | Permalink

Comments

Dear Professor:

One thing I have not heard is if Virginia law alows keeping the drug supplier in secret. Many states have suncshine laws that do not allow for such secrecy.

Of course, the legislature could make an exception for compounding pharmacies making lethal injection drugs.

Th electric chair bill was a bad idea. I believe that both Nebrasksa and Georgis'a Suprem Court have found the method unconstitutional, which is, likely, what McAuliffe was referring to.

They should have gone to nitrogen gas as the backup, as did Oklahoma.

Posted by: dudley sharp | Apr 18, 2016 4:47:10 AM

Re: agree - YES !!

Posted by: Docile Jim Brady „ the Nemo Me ♠ Impune Lacessit ♂ in Oregon ‼ | Apr 18, 2016 5:00:17 AM

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