Opinion: Amid Renewed Talk About Capital Punishment in Virginia, Death Sentences Are Way Down 

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Thanks to last-minute tinkering by Terry McAuliffe, Virginia’s death penalty is back in the news.

Great. Only abortion ignites a more emotional debate.

McAuliffe has amended a death penalty bill that passed the General Assembly during the last session. And he threatened to veto the original if lawmakers refused his changes. They didn’t.

There are no half-measures with this governor.

Either the lawmakers had to agree to buy lethal injection drugs from compounding pharmacies — and keep the names of these companies secret — or see Virginia’s death penalty evaporate.

A little background: The drugs used during lethal-injection executions are in short supply. Last winter, state legislators came up with a solution. They said that if drugs are unavailable, the commonwealth should fire up the electric chair.

Predictably, this sparked a heated debate among politicians. Some argued that Old Sparky is cruel.

Others shrugged, saying painless deaths are not the goal of the state.

“I hear, ‘Oh my Lord, he might have to suffer,’” said the Senate’s Democratic leader, Richard Saslaw, in March. “If we don’t have the necessary drugs, then we need this bill. When you commit acts like that, you give up your right, as far as I’m concerned, to say, ‘Well, I want to die humanely.’”

The governor seems to disagree.

“We take human beings, we strap them into a chair, and then we flood their bodies with 1,800 volts of electricity, subjecting them to unspeakable pain until they die,” McAuliffe said, according to news reports. “Virginia citizens do not want their commonwealth to revert back to a past when excessively inhumane punishments were committed in their name.”

McAuliffe’s language calls for the state to buy the drugs needed to put prisoners to sleep from special pharmacies. The names of those companies would be cloaked in secrecy, as they are in some other states.

“All I’m doing today is providing a humane way to carry out capital punishment here in Virginia so we have options,” McAuliffe said. “If they do not take it up, I want to be clear, they will be ending capital punishment here in Virginia.”

Now the question becomes: “Should the people’s business be conducted covertly?”

I can answer that: No, it shouldn’t.

Lost in all this talk about how to kill the last men on Virginia’s death row is the happy fact that there are just seven living there.


According to an NBC news report, Virginia’s death row was at its most crowded in 1995 when it housed 57 condemned prisoners.

Both executions and death sentences have dropped sharply since then.

The ultimate penalty is imposed on those who commit the most heinous crimes. Last year, for instance, Virginia executed one man: the loathsome Alfredo Prieto. He killed a young couple in Fairfax in 1988, raping one of the victims as she died. The Washington Post reported that he killed as many as seven others. One of those murders was of a 15-year-old in California while he was on the run after the double homicide in Fairfax.

I couldn’t gin up any sympathy for this predator. Neither could the governor, who refused to block his execution in October.

Yet Prieto was the first man executed in the Old Dominion in more than two years.

Why all the empty cells on death row?

Many reasons. But one component is certainly 1995’s truth-in-sentencing law pushed by then-Gov. George Allen.

The measure abolished parole and closed the revolving doors on Virginia’s prisons. Suddenly a 10-year sentence meant the convict would spend most of a decade in prison. And a life sentence? It actually meant life in prison.

Given this ironclad alternative to execution, it’s become rare for a Virginia jury — or judge — to send a convict to death row.

Before we get back to arguing about the death penalty, can’t we all agree that’s a good thing? S

Kerry Dougherty is a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.



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