Editorial in the Roanoke Times re: ABA death penalty study in VA

The verdict on capital punishment system

Virginia should take up the bar association’s reforms to ensure a fair and accurate death penalty system.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The American Bar Association spent two years studying Virginia’s death penalty and came up with a dozen recommendations that would lift the state’s thumb off the scale of justice.

The group does not address whether states should have a death penalty. Rather, the ABA acknowledges that prudence requires capital punishment to be administered justly. And all should favor ensuring that those the commonwealth executes truly merit the irrevocable penalty.

That cannot be said today. The Virginia Death Penalty Assessment Team weighed Virginia’s ways against the bar association’s protocols and found it deficient. Most of the recommended reforms would not cost the state much in the way of funding, but would require procedural changes.

For instance, though Virginia recommended all police departments adopt policies in which an officer administering a lineup is unaware of the suspect’s identity, too few have, allowing for an officer’s bias to taint eyewitness identifications. Another recommendation calls for videotaping all interrogations in capital cases.

And as a case moves toward trial, Virginia should do like other states and the federal government and turn over evidence to defense attorneys so they know who will be called to testify and what these witnesses previously have said. Let the evidence speak as it should, rather than springing it during trial without adequate opportunity to challenge it. Or worse, as was found recently in two capital cases reversed on appeal, supressing exculpatory evidence.

Virginia has, in recent years, gotten a few things right with capital cases: accreditation of crime laboratories and medical examiner offices and certification of their employees, and establishing regional capital defender offices that offer more experienced and qualified trial attorneys.

But Virginia still has at least a dozen reforms remaining before resting its case that it runs a fair and accurate death penalty system. Until then, reasonable doubt remains.