Photos and VideosMore Photos and Videos
Virginia's death row population has dwindled to eight from a peak of 57 in 1995, and it's not just because of the state's efficiency in carrying out capital punishment.
A couple of death sentences have been erased recently -- one because of the inmate's mental health issues, another because a star witness changed his story and prosecutors withheld key evidence.
Another inmate's innocence claim based on recanted testimony was revived last year by an appellate court and is in a judge's hands.
But another major reason for the declining population is that fewer death sentences are being handed down.
David Bruck, director of the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse at Washington and Lee University School of Law, noted that Virginia's death row has received only two new inmates in nearly five years. Last year, there was not a single death sentence handed down in the state that ranks second only to Texas in the number of executions since the U.S. Supreme Court restored capital punishment in 1976.
"The process has largely ground to a halt," Bruck said. "That is a huge development."
Virginia is not alone. Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said death sentences have declined by 75 percent and executions by 60 percent nationally since the 1990s. The drop in death sentences is particularly noteworthy in Virginia because of its long history as a strong capital punishment state, he said.
"We are certainly in a new era when it comes to capital punishment," Dieter said.
Bruck said one of the reasons for the shrinking death row population in Virginia is an increased acceptance of life without parole as a reasonable alternative. He said the 2000 exoneration of Earl Washington Jr., who came within nine days of being executed for a killing he did not commit, awakened the public to the justice system's fallibility.
Before that, he said, people seemed focused solely on mistakes that allowed the guilty to go free.
"Now the public is more sophisticated than it used to be about imperfections, realizing that the mistakes can go both ways," he said. "It's a more realistic view."
Stephen Northup, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said the possibility of executing an innocent person is reason enough for Virginia to scrap capital punishment. Five other states have done so in the last six years, and Maryland may soon join them.
The Maryland Senate passed legislation earlier this week to replace the death penalty with life without parole.
"One of the strongest arguments against capital punishment is that we have an imperfect system which will always be imperfect," Northup said. "We're going to make mistakes, and the death penalty is an irrevocable punishment."
Bruck said another factor behind the trend of fewer death sentences in Virginia is the establishment in 2003 of a capital public defender office.
"They are underfunded and have lots of challenges, but the mere fact there are experienced lawyers on both sides makes these cases more challenging to prosecute, as they should be," Bruck said. "There's more reason to negotiate pleas."
The U.S. Supreme Court's 2002 prohibition against executing the mentally disabled also has had an impact.
Last month, the court ruled that Virginia death row inmate Leon Winston could not be eligible for execution because of mental disability. Ten days earlier, a prosecutor opted for life without parole instead of seeking the death penalty for an Appomattox County man who was found to be insane when he killed eight people.
Lynchburg prosecutor Michael Doucette, president of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth's Attorneys, cautioned against drawing conclusions about public attitudes toward capital punishment based on statistics.
"I could just as easily speculate and say the reason death cases are down is because criminals are paying attention to the fact they might get the death penalty," Doucette said.
The murder rate also has decreased nationally and in Virginia, but not as sharply as the number of death sentences. The nation recorded 4.7 murders per 100,000 people in 2011, down from 5.6 a decade earlier, according to federal statistics cited by the Death Penalty Information Center. In Virginia, the rate declined from 5.1 to 3.7 during the same period.
Virginia's death row inmates:
William Joseph Burns, 46, received on death row Oct. 21, 1998. Convicted of raping and killing his mother-in-law in Shenandoah County.
Virginia's current death row inmates: