A coalition of anti-death-penalty groups wants a moratorium on capital punishment in Virginia until changes make the justice system fairer for the accused. The organizations say that problems ranging from prosecutorial misconduct to limits on appeals have led to wrongful death sentences and possibly the execution of innocent people, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports.
Their call comes as the state is under international scrutiny in the trials of sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo. Authorities chose Virginia as the trial venue because it is the nation’s most efficient state at executing those sentenced to death.
Rachel King of the American Civil Liberties Union said that in Virginia, “support for capital punishment is based on the belief that it’s applied rationally and fairly, and is reserved for the worst of the worst offenders. But we found example after example where this was simply not the case. No one can assure that the people on death row are actually guilty, and if they are guilty, that they should have been sentenced to death.”
An ACLU study named executed killers Roger Keith Coleman and Joseph O’Dell as two men who were possibly innocent. A request for new DNA testing in the Coleman case – though he was executed more than a decade ago – is pending before Gov. Mark R. Warner.
Tim Murtaugh, spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, strongly disagreed with the study. “Virginia’s death penalty statute is tightly drawn and the best in the nation,” he said. “It’s been tested and retested at every judicial level, including the U.S. Supreme Court, and it is sound. There are numerous judicial safeguards, and the governor has broad powers to intervene” if there is a miscarriage of justice. “The continued discussion of issues like this only really serves to cause pain to the families of murder victims.”