Reform Needed to Keep Innocent People off Death Row in VA, Study Says

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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.