Team recommends VA capital punishment improvements
American Bar Association supports additional inmate rights, prosecutor restrictions
The Virginia Death Penalty Assessment Team, part of the American Bar Association, released a report Thursday finding several areas of the state’s capital punishment in need of improvement, particularly citing necessary improvements to eyewitness testimony procedures and management of cases with individuals with mental disabilities.
The team’s recommendations centered around 12 issues the American Bar Association identified as imperative to the fairness of the death penalty. As long as the death penalty exists in Virginia, team members said the state must take action to ensure this form of punishment is reserved for a narrow group consisting only of the worst offenders.
Virginia State Senator John S. Edwards, D-Roanoke and a member of the review team, said the report focused on the administration of the death penalty, not whether it should exist.
“The purpose of the report was not to seek an abolition of the death penalty, but rather to ensure fairness,” Edwards said. “[When it comes to] the adjudication of death as a punishment and looking at how it’s done, there are many recommendations we have made.”
Some areas targeted for reform included better eyewitness identification and interrogation procedures, biological evidence preservation, appellate representation and cases dealing with persons of mental or intellectual disability.
In the past 24 years, 18 people convicted of serious felonies in Virginia based mostly on eyewitness testimony were let free after DNA or other evidence came to light showing they were not guilty, according to the report.
The report also recommended electronic recording of interrogations, which only nine police departments in Virginia do, and requiring prosecutors to hand over more evidence before trial, since two recent capital cases were overturned on appeal due to too little evidence being provided pre-trial.
Virginia requires a standard of “clear and convincing evidence” that biological evidence will support a death-row inmate’s case before an inmate seeking exoneration can gain access to biological testing after a trial has concluded. The team recommended a more lenient standard to allow for testing — “reasonable probability” — which most other states use.
“[One goal is to] get the discussion going with the public about the need to have more fairness in the criminal process, especially with the death penalty,” Edwards said. “We could have some legislation introduced on some of these points and we would recommend the police come and look at best practices. There’s no reason why we can’t have some legislation for the police to comply with best practices.”
Virginia has made some improvements recently in the areas of proper identification of eyewitnesses, including implementing an ABA-endorsed policy for photo and in-person lineups, accreditation of crime labs by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, and establishing Regional Capital Defenders Offices to support death penalty cases.