Former Virginia death row prisoner to go free – Joseph M. Giarratano

A convicted double murderer who came within two days of sitting in Virginia’s electric chair will soon be a free man.

Joseph M. Giarratano, who won support from around the world fighting his 1979 conviction in the Norfolk slayings, was granted parole Monday.

“I’m confident there’s no other prisoner like him in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” said lawyer Stephen A. Northup, who represented Giarratano before the parole board.

Giarratano was a 21-year-old scallop boat worker when he confessed to killing his roommates, 44-year-0ld Barbara Kline and her 15-year-old daughter, Michelle. But his confessions were inconsistent with each other and with the physical evidence, which did not tie him to the crime. He later said that after waking up from a drug-induced stupor and finding the bodies, he simply assumed he was the killer.

His attempts to win freedom attracted the support of actor Jack Lemmon, singer Joan Baez and conservative newspaper columnist James J. Kilpatrick, among others. In 1991, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder granted Giarratano a commutation, changing his sentence from death to life and making him eligible for parole after serving 25 years.

However, Virginia Attorney General Mary Sue Terry declined to grant Giarratano a new trial, saying she was still convinced of his guilt.

n prison, the uneducated Giarratano taught himself the law and advocated for fellow prisoners. He helped secure representation for Earl Washington Jr., another death row inmate, who was eventually exonerated by DNA evidence.

Giarratano sought to have similar evidence tested in his case, but it had been destroyed by the time he was allowed to file such a request.

Adrianne L. Bennett, chairwoman of the Virginia State Parole Board, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the parole decision should not be read as confirming Giarratano’s innocence. While Northup is confident that his client did not commit the murders, he said he believes the Monday decision has more to do with a parole board that is more open than in the past to freeing prisoners who have behaved admirably behind bars.

Now, Northup said, Giarratano plans to move to Charlottesville and work as a paralegal with lawyer Steven D. Rosenfield. He also hopes to work with the University of Virginia Law School’s Innocence Project.

Former Virginia death row inmate granted parole

November  21,  2017

A Virginia death row inmate who had his sentence commuted to life in prison more than two decades ago has been granted parole.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports the Virginia State Parole Board on Monday approved Joseph Giarratano for release.

Board chairwoman Adrianne Bennett says it may take a month before Giarratano, one of the state’s best-known inmates, is freed.

Giarratano was convicted of the 1979 rape and capital murder of 15-year-old Michelle Kline and the killing of her mother, 44-year-old Toni Kline, in Norfolk.

In 1991, two days before his scheduled execution, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder commuted his sentence after questions were raised about his guilt.

Members of the victims’ family couldn’t be reached by the newspaper for comment.

Florida – Court Upholds Death Row Inmate’s Sentence

Jul 01, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A federal appeals court has rejected a Virginia death row inmate’s claim that he can’t be executed because he is intellectually disabled.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday unanimously upheld Alfredo Prieto’s death sentence for the 2005 slayings of two George Washington University students.

At issue in Prieto’s appeal was last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Florida case that a rigid cutoff on IQ test scores cannot be used to determine whether someone is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for execution. Virginia’s law on determining whether a defendant is intellectually disabled was virtually identical to Florida’s.

The appeals court said it could not conclude that no reasonable juror would find Prieto eligible for the death penalty.

Virginia approves new lethal injection drug

february 21, 2014

Virginia’s Department of Corrections has approved the use of a new drug as part of its lethal injection protocol, amid difficulties carrying out executions.

Midazolam is one of the two drugs used in an Ohio execution that took 24 minutes and led to a lawsuit from the family of the inmate, who allege his prolonged death amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

Used in surgery to calm patients and induce sleepiness, midazolam will serve as an alternative first drug in Virginia’s three-drug protocol, according to the department. It will stand in for pentobarbital or thiopental sodium, drugs that states across the country have found difficult to acquire as manufacturers have started refusing to sell their products for use in executions.

Records show that Virginia’s Department of Corrections purchased several doses last fall of both drugs used in the Ohio execution, midazolam and hydromorphone. Use of the second drug has not yet been approved in the state, nor has the department announced a switch from a three-drug to a two-drug protocol.

“There are no plans to move to the two-drug protocol used in Ohio,” said Lisa E. Kinney, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.

Officials in Virginia have told lawmakers that they cannot find reliable supplies of the drugs they need to carry out executions — leading to an aborted attempt in the state legislature this year to use the electric chair as a backup when lethal injection is unavailable.

The state’s supply of all the drugs currently authorized for use in executions will expire in the spring of 2015.

Virginia has executed 110 inmates since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s and is second only to Texas in overall executions. There are currently eight inmates currently on death row in the state.

VIRGINIA – Controversial Death Penalty Bill Killed in VA Senate

february 7, 2014

RICHMOND, Va (WVIR) – Lawmakers in the state legislature have killed a controversial death penalty bill – at least until next year.

Due to a nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs, the bill filed in the state Senate proposed using electrocution as Virginia’s secondary means of execution. The bill was met with fierce opposition by some who view electrocution as archaic, but sponsor Bill Carrico says it’s about justice.

“What about the victims and their families? What about the cruel and unusual punishment that took place there? Does anybody even think about that?” said 40th District Senator Bill Carrico (R).

“It’s quite inhumane, and Virginia would be the only state where a death row prisoner could be forced to be electrocuted,” said 31st District Senator Barbara Favola (D).

The Senate voted 21 to 19, mostly along party lines to send the bill back to committee, effectively killing it for the year.

(Source: WVIR)

Death Penalty By Electric Chair Could Make A Comeback For US Executions

february 6, 2014 (huffington)

Virginia could revive the electric chair as a method to execute prisoners, as European companies and one major distributor in the US block the sale of drugs required for lethal injections.


Experiments with a new ‘cocktail’ of drugs have proved controversial so far. Last month, murderer Dennis McGuires took 25 minutes to die, and was seen gasping painfully in his last moments when he was executed in Ohio.


The Washington Post reported that Virginia could soon have the power to compel prisoners to the electric chair, with a new law going through the state government’s house of representatives.

At the moment, death row prisoners in Virginia are allowed to choose between lethal injection and electrocution.


If lawmakers block the plan, a de facto moratorium on executions could be forced by inmates, who could legitimately demand execution by lethal injection, with the state having no facilities to carry that out.


Supply of lethal injection drugs expires, Virginia electrocutions could return

feb.01.2014 (nbc12)


While states across the country are running low on lethal injection drugs, Virginia’s stockpile has expired, and electrocutions could return.


A proposal is now headed to the Virginia Senate, a bill that would make electrocutions the default method of capital punishment if lethal injections are not available.


The Commonwealth’s supply of lethal injection drugs expired Nov. 30, 2013, and eight people are currently on Virginia’s death row. There are no executions scheduled, largely because of the lengthy appeal process.


But in an interview Friday, Virginia ACLU Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga said the debate now unfolding in Richmond could worsen problems already inherent with capital punishment.


“We have people in Virginia still in jeopardy of being executed for being innocent,” Gastañaga said. “And they’re up there debating how we should kill people, not whether we should kill people.”


A companion bill has already passed the Virginia House of Delegates in a 64-32 vote, with more than half of delegates from the Richmond area supporting the proposal.


In an email from the Virginia Department of Corrections, Director of Communications Lisa E. Kinney said the Department is now exploring options to purchase new lethal injection drugs. Other parts of the country are currently facing a shortage, partly because European companies hesitant to have their drugs used for executions.


“[Virginia’] drugs have come from a domestic company,” Kinney said. “The Department has no position on the pending bills.”


Questions on whether forced electrocutions are humane will continue take center stage if the proposed legislation heads to Governor Terry McAuliffe’s desk. But in a phone interview Friday, the patron of the Senate bill, Sen. Bill Carrico (R-Grayson) said gruesome tales of electrocution are often exaggerated.


“We see nothing to the extent of the horror stories of the Green Mile, the movies people watch,” Carrico said.


Proponents of the electric chair also point to the 25 minutes an Ohio man took to die, with a new combination of lethal injection drugs.


“When people start seeing that these drugs are not becoming exactly effective, it is a more inhumane way to do it than electrocution,” Carrico said. “And what about the victims’ families? Many of them could never see their loved ones again because of these heinous crimes. We need to think about them.”

Carrico’s proposal, Senate Bill 607, is expected to receive a full Senate vote next week

Ex-Virginia executioner becomes opponent of death penalty – Jerry Givens

Jerry Givens executed 62 people.
His routine and conviction never wavered. He’d shave the person’s head, lay his hand on the bald pate and ask for God’s forgiveness for the condemned. Then, he would strap the person into Virginia’s electric chair.
Givens was the state’s chief executioner for 17 years — at a time when the commonwealth put more people to death than any state besides Texas.
“If you knew going out there that raping and killing someone had the consequence of the death penalty, then why are you going to do it?” Givens asked. “I considered it suicide.”
As Virginia executed its 110th person in the modern era last month, Givens prayed for the man, but also for an end to the death penalty. Since leaving his job in 1999, Givens has become one of the state’s most visible — and unlikely — opponents of capital punishment.
Givens’s improbable journey to the death chamber and back did not come easily or quickly for the 60-year-old from Richmond. A searing murder spurred his interest in the work, but it was the innocent life he nearly took that led him to question the system. And he was changed for good when he found himself behind bars.
His evolution underscores that of Virginia itself and the nation. Although polls show that the majority of state residents still support the death penalty, Virginia has experienced a sea change on capital punishment in recent years that is part of a national trend.
Givens grew up in the Creighton Court housing complex in Richmond, where he also graduated from high school in the early 1970s. By 1974, he had gotten a job at a Philip Morris plant and then lost it after fighting with a co-worker.
He recalled someone telling him that he should apply for a job at the state penitentiary before he got sent there. Givens did just that.
After two years as a prison guard, he said, a supervisor approached him about working on death row. He would not be paid extra, but he accepted the job.

“If you knew going out there that raping and killing someone had the consequence of the death penalty, then why are you going to do it?” Givens asked. “I considered it suicide.”

As Virginia executed its 110th person in the modern era last month, Givens prayed for the man, but also for an end to the death penalty. Since leaving his job in 1999, Givens has become one of the state’s most visible — and unlikely — opponents of capital punishment.

His evolution underscores that of Virginia itself and the nation. Although polls show that the majority of state residents still support the death penalty, Virginia has experienced a sea change on capital punishment in recent years that is part of a national trend.

The state has had fewer death sentences over the past five years than any period since the 1970s. Robert Gleason, who was put to death Jan. 16, was the first execution in a year and a half. As recently as 1999, the state put 13 to death in a single year.

Nationwide, the number of death sentences was at record lows in 2011 and 2012, down 75 percent since 1996, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Five states have outlawed capital punishment in the past five years, and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) affirmed plans to push for a moratorium there. Gallup polls show support for capital punishment ebbing.

Givens’s improbable journey to the death chamber and back did not come easily or quickly for the 60-year-old from Richmond. A searing murder spurred his interest in the work, but it was the innocent life he nearly took that led him to question the system. And he was changed for good when he found himself behind bars.

His story helps explain how a state closely associated with the death penalty for decades has entered a new era.

“From the 62 lives I took, I learned a lot,” Givens said.

The first execution

Friends and strangers regularly ask Givens the essential question: What is it like to take another man’s life? In answering, he vividly recalls his first execution, in 1984.

Va. DNA data support innocence of 33 convicted of sex crimes, study concludes

June 18, 2012 Source :


Data from Virginia’s post-conviction DNA project support the innocence of 33 persons convicted of sexual assaults from 1973 to 1987 concludes an Urban Institute study.

Findings released today indicate more people remain to be cleared by the Virginia project, a groundbreaking effort aimed at identifying persons wrongfully convicted in the 15 years before DNA testing was widely available.

The institute estimates a wrongful conviction rate in sexual assault cases of between 8 to 15 percent, comparable with the results in sample testing that exonerated two people and prompted then-Gov. Mark R. Warner to order the full Virginia project in 2005.

Jon Gould, director, of the Washington Institute for Public and International Affairs Research at American University, said “This is the most methodologically sound study that’s been done and the rate is much higher than has been shown in other studies.”

An acknowledged weakness in the institute’s report is that the contract for the study expired before researchers could get to courthouses to review the old trial files to better determine the context and significance of the DNA results.

The institute said available information on the cases was limited to data in the old state forensic files, which mainly included basic facts about the crime and the results of the original forensic tests and the results of more recent DNA analysis.

Rockne Harmon, a former California district attorney and DNA expert, said that is a problem. He said the institute should have at least done a representative sampling of the old court files.

Among other things, rape victims are frequently asked if they had consensual sex within 72 hours of an assault. “Without this (kind of) information little can be said about the materiality of finding a matching or non-matching DNA profile,” said Harmon.

However, John Roman, the lead researcher in the project, said that even if all the court records were reviewed he would not expect many of the 33 cases to drop out.

Weaknesses or not, Steven D. Benjamin, a member of the Virginia Board of Forensic Science and president elect of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the study should set off alarm bells.

“Each defendant in the cases that support innocence should be interviewed immediately, and the case investigated thoroughly,” he said. “If any one of these 33 is innocent, each day . . . is an injustice,” said Benjamin.

The Urban Institute cannot reveal any of the identities, though many of those cases may be made public after July 1 due to recent state legislation ordering the department to release test results in cases where the convicted person’s DNA was not found.

Nearly 800 cases involving 1,100 convicted persons have been tested in the Virginia project since 2005 but only three more people have been exonerated in addition to the two cleared in sample testing seven years ago.

The Urban Institute says the Virginia data – DNA results in a random sample of suspects convicted of rape, murder and other serious crimes — is better suited for such studies on wrongful conviction rates than data in earlier studies.

“This ‘test-them-all’ approach to post-conviction DNA testing has never been replicated by any other state,” says the report.

The Virginia Department of Forensic Science said last month that testing failed to identify, or excluded, the DNA of 78 convicted defendants more than a dozen of them now dead and others not yet located.

Absence of DNA in the 78 cases can be consistent with innocence but may prove nothing. Much depends on context. Failure to find a suspect’s DNA in a cigarette butt at the scene of a rape may be irrelevant — but failure their DNA in semen can be telling.

Though unable to review old courthouse files, the institute said the Virginia data, “likely provide the best opportunity to date to understand the rate of wrongful conviction.”

“Whether the true rate of potential wrongful conviction is 8 percent or 15 percent . . . is not as important as the finding that these results require a strong and coordinated policy response,” concludes the institute report.

Brandon Garrett, a University of Virginia School of Law professor, also thinks the study needs a strong response from policy makers. “I think this report isn’t the final report, it’s just the beginning,” he said.

“There’s still a lot of (work) to do and a lot of questions that need to be answered,” said Garrett.

The Virginia Department of Forensic Science does not determine the legal significance of test results and forwarded them to local authorities where the crimes took place.

But aside from the five exonerations and several other cases, little is known of the other exclusion cases.

Critics of the Virginia effort such as Benjamin and Peter Neufeld, a cofounder of the Innocence Project, want to allow defense lawyers access to project results along with police and prosecutors.

They also urge that cases of possible wrongful convictions be pursued even where the convicted person is dead to clear their name, to make sure the guilty person is off the street and to learn what led to the wrongful conviction to help prevent future ones.

The Virginia Department of Forensic Science and the Board of Forensic Science, which considers the DNA test results criminal records, have long resisted efforts to reveal them to anyone other than law enforcement.

The convicted people were not going to be told about the testing until 2008 when the General Assembly used a budget amendment and directed they be notified.

This year the General Assembly, concerned that potential exonerations were not being adequately investigated, directed the department, effective July 1, to release the test results in cases where testing failed to find the convicted person’s DNA.

The legislators’ concern stemmed from the case of Bennett S. Barbour, of Charles City County, who was wrongly convicted of a 1978 rape in Williamsburg and was one of the people excluded by testing who could not be initially found by mail.

Testing in June 2010 cleared him and implicated a convicted rapist who will be tried for the crime in August. Barbour did not learn about the DNA testing until 18 months later when a volunteer lawyer tracked him down via telephone.

Garrett, of the University of Virginia School of Law, who urges more work be done, said, “Time will tell how many more of these cases, like Barbour’s, will result in full exonerations. Hopefully that process is moving more smoothly now.”


Here is how the study was conducted:

The Justice Policy Center of the Urban Institute studied the test results in 634 of the Virginia cases involving 715 convicted people from 94 Virginia localities under the terms of a $4.5 million federal grant that paid for most, but not all, of the state testing.

Of the 634 cases, 422 were for sexual assault. In 227 of those cases, testing results were sufficient to either implicate or fail to find the convicted person’s DNA. And the institute believes that the testing in 33 of the exclusion cases supports innocence.

Comparing the 33 with all 422 sexual assault convictions yields an 8 percent wrongful conviction rate while comparing it to just the 227 cases where testing either implicated the convicted person or failed to find his or her DNA yields a 15 percent rate.

In 2005 the initial state sample testing of 31 cases resulted in 16 cases where the convicted person’s DNA was either identified or excluded and exonerated two men of rapes.

Comparing the two exonerations to the 31 cases yields a wrongful conviction rate of 6 to 7 percent while comparing the exonerations to the 16 cases with determinative results yields a rate of 12 to 13 percent.

According to the Urban Institute, the Justice Policy Center conducts nonpartisan research and evaluation designed to improve justice and public safety policies and practices at the national, state and local level.


VIRGINIA – lawyers: Executions are illegal practice of medicine

april 24, source

Virginia executioners who inject condemned inmates with lethal doses of drugs are illegally practicing medicine, pharmacy and anesthesiology without licenses, two Alexandria lawyers claim in a complaint filed Tuesday.

Attorneys Meghan Shapiro and Christopher Leibig asked the Richmond Circuit Court for an injunction halting the allegedly unauthorized practices.

The complaint says corrections officers are not checking to ensure that prisoners are properly anesthetized and unconscious before administering two lethal drugs: one that causes asphyxiation and another that stops the heart “with excruciating pain that has been likened to the feeling of having one’s veins set on fire.”

Virginia Department of Corrections spokesman Larry Traylor said prison officials had not seen the complaint and would not comment on pending litigation.

“I’m just trying to hold the Department of Corrections accountable,” Shapiro said in a telephone interview. “I don’t believe they should be able to operate outside the law.”

The complaint names the department’s director, its pharmacy supervisor and unnamed execution team leaders as defendants. By law, the executioners’ names are secret. But Shapiro said depositions of unnamed witnesses and other discovery materials in federal lawsuits show that the drugs, available only by prescription, are not being administered by licensed medical professionals.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment, said lethal injection has been challenged around the country on various grounds. California and Maryland have put executions on hold because of lethal injection issues.

However, Dieter said he is aware of no other challenge that has claimed executioners are violating medical licensing laws and regulations.

“In almost all cases, there are lethal injection challenges accompanying appeals as these executions get close,” Dieter said.

No executions are scheduled at this time in Virginia, which has executed more people than any state except Texas since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Dieter said the federal government and all 34 death penalty states use lethal injection, although some have other methods available as backup. In Virginia, condemned inmates are allowed to choose between injection and electrocution. If they decline to choose, they get the injection.

The administration of those intravenous drugs by unlicensed personnel has been problematic, according to the complaint filed by Shapiro and Leibig.

“They have no idea what they’re doing,” Shapiro said in a written statement.

The lawyers claim that along with failing to determine whether a prisoner is unconscious before administering the lethal drugs, Virginia’s executioners have administered recalled drugs, misused a drug for general anesthesia and made mistakes in paperwork documenting the handling and administration of chemicals.

Execution teams also have spent substantial time during training sessions planning barbecues, picnics and other events, the filing says.

Stephen A. Northup, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said Virginians “should be concerned, if not shocked” by the allegations.

No hearing date has been set.