The Death Penalty
On the death penalty:
As Commonwealth’s Attorney of Albemarle County, I will never seek the death penalty. This is something I have thought a lot about because I have first hand experience representing four men who faced the death penalty. I am immeasurably grateful the lives of the men I represented were spared. As I think back on my experience with each of these men, it's telling that they were all African-American. We know from numerous studies that the death penalty is applied in a racially discriminatory manner. I will use my discretion as a prosecutor to seek a life sentence without parole in capital murder cases.
Here are some of the reasons, in addition to systemic racial discrimination, for no longer seeking death sentences:
Albemarle County's experience demonstrates that justice can be achieved without resorting to death sentences. No death sentence has been imposed in Albemarle County for over 50 years, and the last one was commuted to life in prison.
A death sentence provides no more public safety benefit than a sentence of life in prison without parole, and death sentences are often imposed on people with diminished culpability including the intellectually disabled, mentally ill, teenagers, and people who have experienced extreme childhood trauma.
No error discovered after execution can be corrected and death sentence cases are inherently fraught with the possibility of error. I agree with Freddie Lee Pitts, who was exonerated and released from death row in Florida, when he said "You can release an innocent man from prison, but you can't release him from the grave."
Since 1973, 166 persons sentenced to death across the country have been exonerated of all charges and set free. The most recent exoneration occurred in North Carolina on June 14, 2019 when the federal court determined Charles Ray Finch had been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. Roughly one person has been exonerated for every ten who were executed since 1973. It is simply intolerable for life and death decisions in the criminal justice system to be subject to a 10% error rate.
When it comes to error, we have to look no further than nearby Culpeper County for an example of a wrongful capital murder conviction. Earl Washington, an African-American, was sentenced to death after being convicted of raping and killing a woman in 1982. She was white. Because he was intellectually disabled, the police investigators were able to mislead him and obtain a false confession. Within five days of Mr. Washington’s scheduled execution date in 1994, Governor Doug Wilder commuted his sentence to life in prison. After scientific evidence had conclusively determined Mr. Washington was actually innocent, Governor Gilmore granted him an absolute pardon in 2000, and he was released from prison. Virginia taxpayers paid the cost of incarcerating an innocent man for 18 years and in addition paid $1,900,000 to settle his lawsuit for wrongful conviction.
Finally, family members and loved ones of victims in capital murder cases suffer significant hardship as a result of the decades of litigation, review, and uncertainty that invariably follow in the wake of a death sentence. Some family members and loved ones suffer less hardship when an alternative sentence of life in prison without parole is imposed.