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Assembly-line Executions

April 19, 1999



When it comes to capital punishment, many people think first of Texas. But among large states, Virginia executes the largest number of criminals per resident. The two states together accounted for almost half of executions in the United States last year.

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The reason for Virginia's high rate: The Old Dominion's disturbing system of assembly-line justice in capital cases. While in most states the average time between sentencing and execution is nine years, in Virginia, it's less than five.

The state's primary method of speeding up executions is to limit appeals, an approach that the federal government, sadly, has also adopted. Analysts cited by The Washington Post say that more than most states, Virginia limits defense attorneys' ability to claim on appeal that errors were committed during trial. In addition, the state's legal-aid system for poor defendants is mediocre and underfunded. The Post reports that Virginia pays less to court-appointed attorneys than virtually any other state.

The state's policies have got the green light from a conservative state Supreme Court and an equally conservative Fourth US Circuit Court of Appeals.

But at least some Virginia procedures are about to undergo a US Supreme Court review. The court recently stayed the planned April 6 execution of death-row inmate Terry Williams and agreed to review his case. The high court will decide whether Mr. Williams - convicted in a 1985 murder-robbery that netted him $3 - should be able to argue in a federal court that he was denied adequate legal help during his sentencing.

Two state district courts, including the judge who originally sentenced Williams to death, have ruled that he deserves a new sentencing hearing. They noted that his defense attorney didn't introduce evidence regarding his bad childhood and a diagnosis of borderline mental retardation.

The justices could review the whole question of limiting death-row appeals, but may let the expedited procedures stand. That would be unfortunate. Evidence is building that several capital-punishment cases involve wrongly convicted defendants. Few favor frivolous appeals, but in some cases information is developed after the original trial that courts have a profound moral obligation to review.

Even better would be society's recognition that the death penalty is wrong and serves little purpose. Life imprisonment adequately protects the public and punishes the wrongdoer. Capital punishment denies the possibility of redemption and is motivated largely by vengeance. That emotion can neither restore a loved one lost in a heinous crime nor bring good to the vengeful.