Northup: Death Penalty: Virginia should end this unfair practice

By: STEPHEN A. NORTHUP | Times-Dispatch
Published: June 28, 2012

Forty years ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia struck down the death penalty across the country, saying that the inconsistent manner in which it was applied constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Constitution. When the death penalty was reinstated four years later in Gregg v. Georgia, new capital sentencing procedures were expected to make the nation’s most severe punishment less arbitrary and more fair. The court described the new statutes as “a responsible effort to define those crimes and those criminals for which capital punishment is most probably an effective deterrent.”

Decades later, random factors such as the race of the victim, the jurisdiction in which the crime was committed and the quality of defense counsel continue to exert significant influence on whether a defendant will receive the death penalty. Last year, a study of the Louisiana death penalty found that the odds of a death sentence were 97 percent higher for cases in which the victim was white than for those in which the victim was black. A similar study in 2000 concluded that “race continues to be a significant factor in capital sentencing” in Virginia. Just this week, the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of a federal district court in Roanoke vacating the death sentence of Leon Winston on the ground…