Can the Death Penalty be Reformed?

Can the Death Penalty be Reformed?

Former Virginia Attorney General Mark Early joins Kojo to discuss the prospects for reforming capital punishment across the United States.

During Mark Earley's tenure as Attorney General of Virginia, the Commonwealth executed 36 people. Today, Earley says he still supports the death penalty philosophically. But he worries that practical problems plaguing the criminal justice system result in wrongful convictions and executions of innocent people. He joins Kojo to discuss the prospects for reforming capital punishment across the United States.

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Former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley said Thursday lethal injection "has to change so that we know it's an appropriate option if it's going to be a viable form of punishment."

Watch the full discussion below.

Rethinking Lethal Injection?

Oklahoma's "botched" execution of Clayton Lockett-- a convicted murderer-- has focused national and international attention on the way the death penalty is administered across the United States. Like Oklahoma, Virginia uses a "three drug combination" for lethal injection.

The Constitution Project's Death Penalty Committee has recommended that states move to abandon the three drug protocol in favor of a single drug. The Committee has suggested 38 additional reforms that would increase transparency and improve the integrity of the Death Penalty system, from trial through appeals to executions.

Former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley (R) was a member of the Committee. Though he continues to believe in the death penalty, philosophically, he recently told the Guardian that "without substantial revisions-- not only to lethal injection, but across the board-- the administration of capital punishment in America is unjust, disproportionate and very likely unconstitutional"

A Regional Decline in the Death Penalty
The year 1999 was the high water mark for executions in the United States. Ninety-eight people were put to death around the United States that year, including 14 people in Virginia.

In 2013, 39 executions took place around the country, including one in Virginia. Twenty people have been executed in 2014.

Virginia provides an interesting case-study in the evolution of national debates about crime and punishment. In the 1990s, the Commonwealth developed a national reputation as a pro-capital punishment state. It's elected leaders ran as "tough on crime" and its justice system moved swiftly from prosecution to appeal. But the number of executions and capital convictions has declined swiftly in recent years.

Source: Death Penalty Information Center

In Maryland, the death penalty was formally repealed in 2013. The District of Columbia does not use capital punishment.

Some believe the decline in the death penalty in the Commonwealth and nationwide is linked to overall decline in crime. But many advocates in Virginia credit the creation the Capital Defender Office-- a branch of the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission-- which provides more resources for public defenders to provide better defense to poor people accused of crimes.

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The Kojo Nnamdi Show is produced by member-supported WAMU 88.5 in Washington DC.