Mark Earley, Virginia’s attorney general during one of the busiest execution stretches in modern state history, has changed his mind about capital punishment.
“If you believe that the government always ‘gets it right,’ never makes serious mistakes, and is never tainted with corruption, then you can be comfortable supporting the death penalty,” he wrote in a recent essay for the University of Richmond Law Review.
“I no longer have such faith in the government and, therefore, cannot and do not support the death penalty,” wrote Earley, attorney general from 1998 until June 3, 2001, when he resigned to run for governor.
Among other things, his essay touched on a capital murder case he handled as a young lawyer; the case of Earl Washington Jr., an innocent man wrongly sentenced to death in Culpeper; and a capital murder conviction recently tossed out in South Carolina some 70 years too late.
Earley is at least the second Virginia attorney general to change his mind about capital punishment.
William Broaddus, the state’s attorney general in 1985 and 1986, when five executions were held, was an outspoken opponent of the death penalty by 2000.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 36 people were executed in Virginia while Earley was attorney general. One of his office’s jobs was to defend death challenges from lawyers representing the condemned inmates, and he had high praise for the members of his staff tasked with the job.
But he described the process of going up and down the appeals courts as being “like a yo-yo on a string … literally until moments before an execution was carried out.”
Today, there are eight men on Virginia’s death row, among them Ricky Javon Gray, sentenced to death for a weeklong killing rampage in January 2006 in Richmond that claimed seven lives.
Virginia has put to death 110 people since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in 1976. The toll is third-highest among execution states in the U.S., but the percentage of people sentenced to death in Virginia who were ultimately executed is by far the highest in the country.
“We were poised to fight any last-minute appeals that were filed to spare a defendant’s life,” Earley recalled. But, he added, “Being that close to it all had a profound effect on me. Overseeing a legal system that put so many to death with such efficiency eroded me.
“Regardless of one’s support or lack thereof, the carrying out of the death penalty is gruesome business,” he wrote.
Earley participated in a symposium on the death penalty at the University of Richmond School of Law in October. Stephen Northup, former director of Virginians For Alternatives to the Death Penalty, an anti-capital punishment group, said he chatted there with Earley, and Earley said he still had not made up his mind about the death penalty.
Reached by telephone Wednesday, Earley said it was a ruling last December by a South Carolina judge tossing out the conviction of 14-year-old George Stinney — executed more than 70 years ago — that was his tipping point.
Now in private practice in Leesburg, Earley said he plans to return to Richmond this year and open an office.
In his essay, Earley wrote that he could still make an argument on why the death penalty should remain a tool for prosecutors and, he noted, “there are some very heinous and unspeakable criminal atrocities.”
But he argued that the death penalty is based on the false Utopian premise that death sentences are 100 percent accurate.
“From the inception of our democracy, we have viewed it better that 10 guilty persons escape than one innocent person languish in prison or be put to death,” wrote Earley.