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Capital defender offices to close after Virginia abolishes the death penalty

Posted at 5:53 PM, Mar 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-24 20:34:49-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Four capital defender offices across Virginia will close after the Commonwealth became the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty.

Gov. Ralph Northam signed the legislation Wednesday making Virginia the 23rd state to scrub capital punishment from the books. The Commonwealth had the second-highest number of executions in the U.S. behind Texas.

Maria Jankowski, deputy executive director for the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission (VIDC), described the day as “monumental.”

Established in 2004 by state law, VIDC protects the constitutional right to counsel for people who cannot afford their own lawyer.

Jankowski oversees four capital defender offices across the state in addition to 26 public defender offices and three satellite offices.

“These are some of the most committed, mission-driven lawyers you’ll ever meet,” she said in an interview following the governor’s signing ceremony.

Each capital defender office is staffed with at least eight attorneys and experts who exclusively work on behalf of defendants facing the death penalty.

The offices are located in Vienna, Norfolk, Roanoke, and Richmond.

VIDC has been in the process of shutting down those offices after the General Assembly passed bills banning capital punishment last month.

Jankowski said those who dedicated their service to the capital defender offices are currently looking for other opportunities. Some may move to work in the federal system or in another state that still sentences defendants to the death penalty.

Others will move to one of 26 public defender offices.

Jankowski said countless resources are dedicated to defending someone on death row.

“It’s massively time-consuming. It involves social histories, it involves finding out about the clients, not just educational background, personal background, family background,” she described.

The state allocated approximately $3.9 million to fund the capital defender offices as each defendant is provided two attorneys to work their case.

“That’s not counting experts, that’s not evaluations. That’s not the cost of the private attorney and that’s none of the cost on the other side of the courtroom - the prosecution cost. It’s astronomically expensive to have the death penalty and in my mind isn’t necessary,” Jankowski stated.

Supporters of the death penalty argued that the law should exist for those who commit the most heinous, serious crimes.

There is no timeline when the capital defender offices will officially close.