death row

Capital Punishment

With implementation of ABA standards for capital defense, the number of death sentences imposed by Virginia courts has declined in recent years, but Virginia still holds firm as one of the most active death chambers in American history: it has executed more individuals than any other state, the third most since the end of the moratorium on the death penalty in 1976, and has its second execution of the year planned for April 2017.

It seems that progress in death sentences in Virginia has largely been the product of defense advocacy, not enlightenment within the political branches of government. For example, facing a shortage of chemicals necessary to kill death row prisoners via lethal injection, the General Assembly in 2016 proposed a bill to mandate death by electrocution when lethal injection drugs were unavailable. Rather than simply veto the bill as inhumane, Governor McAuliffe offered amendments permitting the Department of Corrections "to enter into confidential contracts to obtain execution drugs from compounding pharmacies, whose identities would be concealed from the public." In doing so, the administration "ignore[d] the concerns" of opponents" and "tightened the veil of secrecy even further." 

The only execution carried out since the new legislation was deeply troubling:

"Prior to the change, witnesses watched as the prisoner entered the execution chamber and was strapped to the gurney. A curtain was closed while staff placed intravenous lines and electrodes for a cardiac monitor, then reopened when the execution was ready to be carried out. The curtain was closed for 33 minutes during Gray's execution, raising concerns that something had gone wrong in the placement of the IV. The ACLU of Virginia said, "the length of time Gray was behind the curtain, as well as the presence of a doctor who confirmed his death using a stethoscope rather than by viewing a heart monitor as the previous protocols required, suggest something unusual happened during the process of killing him."

In response, the Department of Corrections simply turned its figurative veil into a literal one, changing its execution procedures to conduct more of the execution preparations out of view of witnesses.

As other states seek to limit or eliminate capital punishment, Virginia appears committed to reviving it.