By Courtney Ridenhour
While hundreds gathered outside a prison in Jackson, Ga., to protest the execution of a convicted man who maintained his innocence, 10 students shuffled through capital case files at Washington & Lee University’s School of Law.
Heightened media coverage of the Troy Davis execution in Georgia, and the execution on the same day, Sept. 21, of another man in Texas, may be misleading. The fact is, use of the death penalty is on the decline, said Professor David Bruck, who leads the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse, W&L law school’s non-partisan organization that aids court-appointed capital defenders.
The Clearinghouse was founded at the law school in 1989 – the same year Troy Davis was accused of shooting and killing police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Ga. He was found guilty in 1991, but since then, seven of the witnesses who testified against him have recanted.
For 22 years, Davis fought his conviction from death row. But after four halts in the execution, he was put to death by lethal injection Sept. 21.
In the last five years, three states have abolished the death penalty. A fourth – Maryland – has proposed abolition and another half dozen are “seriously considering” it, Bruck said.
European nations have abolished the death penalty as a basic violation of human rights. The same trends are at work here, Bruck said. “In the last 10 years we’ve seen a very big shift in American attitudes towards the death penalty.”
Most Americans, when polled, say they support the death penalty, Bruck acknowledged. But surveys show there is a growing ambivalence toward the practice.
The fact that some states have abolished the death penalty is one sign of change. “That hasn’t happened since the 1960s,” he said. “It was unthinkable 10 or 20 years ago.”
Virginia is witnessing a similar decline in the use of the death penalty. Historically, Virginia has executed more individuals than any other state since the colonial period, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Bruck said that the number of murders in Virginia has stayed consistent at around 400 a year. Only a small fraction of convicted murderers face capital punishment, Bruck said. He estimates 15 to 20 capital cases are awaiting trial in the state.
But in the past 3½ years, only one Virginia jury has sent a man to death row. Another defendant was given a death sentence by a judge after waiving his right to trial by jury. The other cases are typically resolved without trials by state prosecutors who negotiate guilty pleas with defendants who receive life in prison without parole.
This decline is a new phenomenon in a state that has had a high execution rate not only through its 400-year history but also since the U.S. Supreme Court set a higher Constitutional bar for executions in a 1972 ruling. Since then, Virginia has achieved the second highest number of executions in the United States, behind Texas. Virginia has executed 109 prisoners.
The state’s ratio of executions to death-penalty sentences also far outpaces that of any other – 72.5 percent of all death sentences have been carried out. Texas is next, executing 49.8 percent of defendants with death sentences, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Because of Virginia’s death penalty history, Bruck said, he doesn’t think abolition is in the state’s near future. “Virginia will be one of the last.”
David Bruck will be speaking about the death penalty at Rockbridge County High School at 7 p.m. Oct. 5. Visit http://www.youseemore.com/rockbridge/default.asp for more information.