Virginia’s non-debate. Politics in Virginia includes a lot of debates. Trasnportation funding. Medicaid expansion. Taxes. However, one critical aspect of Virginia law has fallen from view – the death penalty. This lack of debate over the death penalty is not due to a lack of executions. Since 1976 Virginia has posted the third most executions of any state – far behind Texas but only one execution behind Oklahoma.
The Innocence Project. The Innocence Project is a non-profit group of lawyers who re-examine the cases of people convicted of serious crimes. The group often uses new DNA techniques to determine whether a conviction was correct or in error. To date, the Innocence Project has exonerated 16 Virginians of serious crimes. Some of those innocent people were on Virginia’s death row when they were exonerated of the crimes that landed them on death row. One such case was the conviction of Earl Washington. Convicted of rape and murder Earl Washington was sentenced to death. Subsequent DNA testing cleared Washington of the rape and murder convictions. Mr. Washington’s case prompted an independent audit of Virginia’s DNA testing lab. The results were not encouraging.
- “This laboratory that touts itself as the best DNA laboratory in the country generated erroneous test results in a capital case, twice, using two different DNA methods,” said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project. “The audit reveals not only that the laboratory’s most senior DNA analyst, responsible for DNA testing in many of the state’s capital cases, made serious errors, but that the laboratory’s system to catch these errors completely failed. This audit provides compelling evidence that crime labs cannot police themselves, and that only with the statutory requirement that they be subject to independent, expert oversight can we have faith that appropriate controls are in place.”
Enter the feds. Virginia is not the only political entity with suspect processes in criminal investigations. Recent evidence suggests that the vaunted FBI may have been responsible for systematic and willful mismanagement of critical evidence. Of the 2,600 convictions obtained through these flawed processes 45 resulted in the imposition of the death penalty. More troublesome, the agency did not inform the convicts of the problems after they were discovered and spent years debating the matter rather than promptly following up on the convictions.
Redo. You can’t undo an execution. Conservatives in Virginia will rail against abortion as the murder of innocents. However, reasonable people can honestly debate when life begins. There can be no debate as to whether a person convicted of a crime is alive or not. There can only be a discussion of whether state sanctioned murder is an appropriate remedy for the crime. In too many cases shoddy evidence analysis and law enforcement puts these convictions in doubt. It is time for Virginia’s politicians to restart the necessary debate as to whether the state should execute living human beings on behalf of its citizens.