A recent study by the American Bar Association found several flaws in Virginia’s death penalty, and made recommendations for reform.
While the study did not call for a suspension of capital punishment until reforms are made (as previous studies have), the team of legal experts did suggest changing interrogation procedures and policies regarding biological evidence.
Requiring all interrogations in capital cases to be video recorded is one such improvement and would be easy and inexpensive to implement, according to James E. Hawdon, sociology professor and director of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention at Virginia Tech.
“It would be difficult to justify not [requiring that],” he said, pointing out that digital technology has made recording easier and more affordable.
Currently, only nine Virginia law enforcement agencies record a majority of their interrogations.
Improving preservation of biological evidence could be a trickier reform to implement. Hawdon explained that some evidence just deteriorates naturally, while other evidence takes up too much space to store for a long time.
Similarly, improving post-conviction access to biological evidence may prove more difficult than the report suggests, because lawmakers will want to avoid creating a system that allows convicted persons to delay their sentence by demanding more evidence.
Better access to biological evidence is likely to happen at some point though, Hawdon said, because of cases where biological evidence has exonerated people. There have been 311 instances of DNA exoneration in the United States, according to The Innocence Project.
“There’s going to be pressure on the state to make the system as failsafe as possible,” Hawdon added.
Mary Atwell, a professor of criminal justice at Radford University, agreed.
“In the past, legislators have been most open to reforms that have to do with biological evidence,” she said. “The argument can be made that such evidence increases the likelihood of punishing the really guilty and freeing the truly innocent. It’s hard for legislators to argue with that. But, I’m not sure in the current climate whether legislatures will want to approve any reforms that will increase the cost of prosecution.”
Public support for the death penalty has been declining in Virginia, as well as in the nation at a whole, according to Roby Page, a sociology professor at RU:
“As the state with the second-highest execution rate since reinstatement [of the death penalty] in 1976, Virginia is relatively supportive of capital punishment, and I believe approximately in sync with American public opinion in general.”
Page went on to point out that national support has been slowly on the decline — Pew data shows that 78 percent of Americans favored the death penalty for a convicted murderer in the 1990s, while only 68 percent favor it today in the same situation.
All the experts seemed to agree that these improvements are inevitable, but may be slow in coming. As Hawdon put it:
“The law is inherently conservative in the sense that it is not easy to change.”
All is not lost, however. Hawdon continued by saying that proponents of the death penalty are not likely to oppose these changes, because they’re only meant to protect innocent people from being executed.
“Even staunch proponents of capital punishment don’t want that,” he said.
Join the discussion Please be relevant and respectful.
I think that the more research that gets done, the more people will move away from the death penalty.
One argument that's been debated in academia is whether or not those who committed murders are mentally ill, making the case that the inclination to murder is tied to a mental illness. Essentially, the death penalty is a punishment to those who suffer from a mental illness.
Not sure where I stand on that, I'm not an expert, but it's an interesting notion.
I've always been morally opposed to the death penalty and weary of the idea of giving the state the power to kill its citizens, so these reforms seem like a necessary step in the right direction. What's worrisome is the admittance that these reforms might take a while to be implemented and the absence of halting the program in the meantime.
@highammichael I'm not an expert on that either, but I think the argument hinges on whether or not an individual understands the consequences and moral implications of what s/he has done.
If I understand correctly, someone with Antisocial Personality Disorder, for example, might be inclined to ignore social norms but is intelligent enough to understand that s/he is violating the rights of others. In such a case, I don't think mental illness mitigates a person's responsibility for crimes s/he has committed.
@JaneSusskind I'm conflicted on the moral argument. It seems like the penal system gives the state the right to take away much of what makes life worth living, so drawing the line at execution seems a bit disingenuous to me. I do agree with you that halting the program until reforms are implemented would be a wise step.
@JaneSusskind what if the state granted individuals the right to kill ones self?
@JaneSusskind I actually believe the death penalty should exist, but it shouldn't be a sentence that is given lightly.
@Alextest Are you speaking of assisted suicide in all cases, or specifically in the case of convicted persons?
@Shawn M Griffiths Yes, this sums up my feelings on the matter as well. I would add the caveat that it should only be applied when DNA evidence, video evidence, etc., is undeniable.