The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Virginia must prevent wrongful executions

The execution chamber at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Va. (Virginia Department of Corrections via AP) (AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Michael P. Mullin, a Democrat, represents Newport News in the Virginia House of Delegates. He is an assistant commonwealth’s attorney for the City of Hampton.

Earl Washington Jr. came within eight days of being executed in Virginia for a crime he didn’t commit. He spent 16 years on death row before being exonerated. He was just 22 years old, with an IQ of 69 (equivalent to a 9- or 10-year-old), when he was ripped from his home and his family and sentenced to die. Eventually, DNA testing would lead to his exoneration, but not before robbing him of a decade and a half of his life — a life that was nearly extinguished altogether. His story, as shocking as it is, is unfortunately not that unusual.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 53 men and women have been wrongfully convicted of serious crimes in Virginia since 1989, including 18 who were convicted of murder. Collectively, these men and women spent 739 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. More than half of these exonerated individuals are Black, including Washington.

The common causes of wrongful conviction are well known. What isn’t known is the number of innocent people behind bars, but it’s somewhere between 2 percent and 10 percent. As a career-long criminal prosecutor, I have worked on cases in dozens of jurisdictions across Virginia, handling everything from traffic violations to the most horrific murders. Given the numbers, it is a real possibility that somewhere in those thousands of cases, someone was wrongfully convicted. That keeps me up at night.

We have adopted reforms to protect against wrongful convictions, and additional measures can and should be taken. But as long as we have a system that relies on human beings, with all of their frailties and biases, we can never eliminate the risk of wrongful conviction completely. The death penalty is a permanent response within an imperfect system. For every nine executions in the U.S. since 1973, approximately one person has been released from death row because of exoneration. In 2014, the National Academy of Sciences determined that approximately 4 percent of the individuals on death row would eventually be exonerated if their executions were halted.

We simply don’t know how many innocent people may have been executed in recent years, as cases are rarely reinvestigated after an execution has occurred. Virginia is second only to Texas in carrying out the most executions of any state since 1973, and holds the title of first overall historically with nearly 1,400 executions. In many of these cases, the commonwealth shamefully failed to provide even a modicum of due process to the men and women who were facing death sentences, predominantly to the overwhelming number of Black Virginians who were eventually executed. Between 1901 and 1981, nearly six times more Black people were executed than White people, many for non-homicide offenses.

In 1951, Virginia executed seven Black men known as the Martinsville Seven, in what was the commonwealth’s largest mass execution in history. It is very likely that at least five of the seven men were innocent, and none of the men was afforded due process or adequate legal representation. They were tried and sentenced to die by all-White juries.

In the coming days, the Virginia General Assembly will decide if it will abolish the death penalty. I introduced legislation in the House because, as a prosecutor who has seen our legal system from the inside, I felt compelled to do my part. We need to ensure that innocent men and women, like Washington, are never sent to the gurney again. It is time for Virginia to create a new legacy, one that embraces fairness over finality, accuracy over expediency and, most important, one that guarantees due process and equality for all.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Virginia is on the verge of abolishing the death penalty. Other states should follow suit.

The Post’s View: The death penalty is unworthy of America

Paul O’Shea: It’s time for Virginia to finally repeal the death penalty

George F. Will: The Constitution and the courts make possible criminal justice reform

The Post’s View: The death penalty lost more ground in 2020 — except in the Trump administration