New ACLU Report Finds Virginia Death Penalty System Riddled with Flaws, Recommends Sweeping Changes

Document Date: November 12, 2003


RICHMOND, VA – Virginia’s death penalty system is so flawed that it cannot ensure a reliable determination of guilt or innocence, according to an American Civil Liberties Union study released today.

The study, entitled Broken Justice: The Death Penalty in Virginia, was endorsed by a broad range of organizations, including the Rutherford Institute, the Virginia NAACP, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

“Support for capital punishment is based on the belief that it is applied rationally and fairly, and is reserved for the worst of the worst offenders,” said Rachel King, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project and author of the report. “But we found example after example where this was simply not the case. No one can assure that the people on death row are actually guilty, and if they are guilty, that they should have been sentenced to death.”

According to the study, prosecutorial misconduct and incompetent counsel, combined with arbitrary restrictions on presenting evidence and fixing trial mistakes, have created a flawed system that can convict innocent people and deprive others of a fair hearing.

“In Virginia, whether or not you are sentenced to death has little to do with the crime, and everything to do with your race, where you live, and who prosecutes your case,” said John Whitehead, Executive Director of the Rutherford Institute. “This is in direct contradiction to America’s fundamental faith in ‘blind’ justice.”

The report included extensive recommendations for improving the system, from ending the 21-day post-trial limit on admitting non-DNA evidence of innocence, to making public the names of prosecutors who have engaged in prosecutorial misconduct.

The report is an update of a 2000 study by the ACLU of Virginia that examined prosecutorial discretion in the charging of capital crimes, quality of legal representation for the accused at trial, appellate review of trials resulting in the death penalty and the role of race. The revised and expanded report issued today updates that information, and includes information on people who have been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death row in Virginia, as well as an in-depth look at several cases of prosecutorial misconduct.

“The new report shows that in the three years since the release of the first report, Virginia has made no progress whatsoever in addressing inequities in the its death penalty system,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “As evidenced by the fast growing number of organizations seeking a moratorium on executions, Virginians want death penalty reform now. The lawmakers just need to catch up with the citizens.”

Other organizations that have endorsed the report include the Office of Justice and Peace of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Virginia CURE, Virginia Coalition for Juvenile Justice, and the Legal Aid Justice Center.

The report will be distributed to all Virginia lawmakers. It is available online at /node/21950

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