– April 15, 2015 –
The Virginia Catholic Conference and fellow Virginia death penalty abolition groups were optimistic when the American Bar Association (ABA) released results from a two-year study on fairness in Virginia’s death penalty system. The September 2013 release date allowed enough time ahead of the 2014 General Assembly session to file proactive legislation to implement some of the ABA recommendations. Several legislators filed bills mirroring ABA recommendations, including one bill that mandated uniform statewide witness identification procedures and another that made persons with mental disability and impairment ineligible for the death penalty. Unfortunately, bills attempting to implement the ABA recommendations didn’t survive in committee.
Rather than the Virginia General Assembly focusing on bills to ensure fair trial procedures in capital trials and compliance with Supreme Court decisions, the measure that dominated death penalty discussions in Richmond during the recent legislative session was about the mechanics of execution. The Virginia Department of Corrections has not been immune to the recent lethal injection drug shortages. Current Virginia law requires that a condemned inmate be given a choice between lethal injection and electrocution, and if no choice is made then the default is to lethal injection. The lethal injection drug shortage means in practice that executions could become more difficult to carry out in Virginia. Death penalty proponents, therefore, filed legislation to give the Director of the Virginia Department of Corrections the ability to certify that drugs were unavailable and allow the execution to proceed by electrocution despite an inmate’s clear choice.
The Virginia Catholic Conference opposed the legislation because it gave the Director of the Department of Corrections significant power with little oversight to determine the execution method even if the inmate chose a different method. The House passed the bill by a wide margin, but fortunately the path through the Senate was more complicated. This “electrocution bill,” notorious on Capitol Square, went through a series of hotly contested political maneuverings that featured numerous ups and downs over several anxious weeks but – in the end – it was thankfully tabled at the final Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services committee meeting.
The “electrocution bill” was not the death penalty conversation the Conference wanted to engage in; yet there was a real conversation about Virginia’s execution practices. The Virginia Catholic Conference looks forward to more proactive legislation during next year’s session, so that Virginia can make some needed steps forward.
This article first appeared in the April 2014 CMN Newsletter.