John Allen Muhammad's execution for the sniper shootings should be relatively swift, the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot says. The commonwealth of Virginia executes condemned prisoners faster than any other state, and its courts uphold death sentences more often than those anywhere else. If he loses all appeals, Muhammad may choose between death by lethal injection and electrocution.
The biggest legal question may be whether Virginia's new anti-terrorism death-penalty statute passes constitutional muster. Muhammad will join 27 others on Virginia's death row, located at Sussex I State Prison in Waverly. The death chamber is in the Greensville Correctional Center in nearby Jarratt.
In Virginia, Muhammad stands little chance of sustaining endless appeals. In Florida, Gary Alvord has been on death row since 1974 for a triple murder. He is the longest-serving death-row inmate in the country.
The Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., says Virginia's death-row inmates average five years from sentence to execution. The national average among the 38 states that allow capital punishment is 10 years. “In states that regularly carry out executions, Virginia is by far the fastest,” said Richard Dieter, center director.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch says Muhammad could be executed in three to four years, if the case proceeds smoothly through state and federal courts without setbacks that can add years or that Muhammad does not abandon his appeals, as some on death row do, shortening the process.
His chances of a successful appeal, based on history, are slim. Of 136 death sentences imposed in Virginia courts from 1977 to 2001, 61 percent have been carried out – a rate nearly twice as high as the next nearest state, the Times-Dispatch says.
The Virginian Pilot reports that The Virginia Supreme Court reverses fewer death cases than any other state appeals court in the country, said a recent study by Columbia University. Defendants are stymied by strict rules that prohibit excessive delays and the introduction of new evidence other than DNA.
Assuming that the judge in the Muhammad case upholds the death sentence, the Virginia Supreme Court reviews all death sentences, including the trial judge's evidentiary rulings and jury instructions. Under a subsequent habeas corpus review, the Virginia Supreme Court gets the case again and reviews constitutional issues, such as the state's new anti-terrorism death-penalty law.
In a third stage, a federal habeas corpus case, a federal judge in Norfolk will hear arguments about constitutional issues. That decision is reviewed by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond and then again by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The next inmate scheduled to be executed in Virginia is James E. Reid, who was sentenced to die for a 1996 murder and attempted rape. His date is Dec. 18.