Virginia's death row population has dwindled to eight from a peak of 57 in 1995, and it's not just because of the state's efficiency in carrying out capital punishment.
A couple of death sentences have been erased recently — one because of the inmate's mental health issues, another because a star witness changed his story and prosecutors withheld key evidence. Another inmate's innocence claim based on recanted testimony was revived last year by an appellate court and is in a judge's hands.
But another major reason for the declining population is that fewer death sentences are being handed down. David Bruck, director of the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse at Washington and Lee University School of Law, noted that Virginia's death row has received only two new inmates in nearly five years. Last year, there was not a single death sentence handed down in the state that ranks second only to Texas in the number of executions since the U.S. Supreme Court restored capital punishment in 1976.
Bruck said one of the reasons for the shrinking death row population in Virginia is an increased acceptance of life without parole as a reasonable alternative. He said the 2000 exoneration of Earl Washington Jr., who came within nine days of being executed for a killing he did not commit, awakened the public to the justice system's fallibility. Before that, he said, people seemed focused solely on mistakes that allowed the guilty to go free.
The article notes that a statewide capital public defender's office was created in 2003.