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Herring defends use of solitary confinement on death row

McLEAN, Va. (AP) -- A federal judge's order banning Virginia from automatically placing death-row inmates in solitary confinement "would do away with death row as it is currently operated" in Virginia and elsewhere, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring's office argued in court papers.

Herring's office filed papers Monday with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, seeking to overturn the decision of a federal judge who ruled that automatically banishing death-row inmates to solitary confinement violates their constitutional rights.

U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema in Alexandria ruled last year that the practice of solitary confinement is so onerous that the Department of Corrections must justify its use for each inmate on death row. Failing to do so violates their due process rights, she said in her ruling.

As it stands now, the state's eight death-row inmates are automatically placed in solitary.

Herring's office says in its appeal that the judiciary should not second-guess prison wardens on issues of safety.

"The District Court's ruling is unprecedented," the AG's office wrote in its brief. "It would do away with death row as it is currently operated in Virginia and numerous other States. ... The decision is monumentally wrong and intrudes into the core professional judgment of State corrections officials."

The use of solitary confinement has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. In Colorado, the state's Corrections Department director, Rick Raemisch, spent a day in solitary confinement himself and vowed to minimize the practice after saying the experiment left him "feeling twitchy and paranoid."

Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union reported that the overwhelming majority of states with the death penalty house death-row inmates in solitary confinement, and said that the problem is exacerbated as the pace of executions slows and more inmates are held in solitary indefinitely.

"Solitary confinement can have very deleterious effects on inmates. No prisoner should be subjected to those conditions without any penological reason," said Rebecca Glenberg, executive director of the ACLU's Virginia chapter.

In the Virginia case, Brinkema took up the issue after inmate Alfredo Prieto -- who was sent to death row in 2008 for the 1988 murder of two George Washington University students -- sued over the conditions of his confinement. Brinkema tossed out Prieto's self-filed complaint that solitary confinement amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, but she appointed lawyers to help him with his argument that solitary confinement as administered by Virginia infringes his constitutional due process rights.

Jon Sheldon, a lawyer who has represented several capital murder defendants in Virginia, said Brinkema's ruling is significant.

"Finally a judge has said enough is enough, and we're not going to defer to the executive branch in its `No amount of punishment is enough' approach," Sheldon said.

In January, Brinkema denied the state's request to temporarily delay her ruling while the state appeals. But corrections officials have done nothing of significance to implement the changes demanded by Brinkema, Sheldon said.

The only change that has actually occurred, Sheldon said, is that Prieto is now allowed an hour of exercise once a day in the gym rather than the small pen that inmates refer to as the "dog cage." Prieto is still kept in solitary, even during his exercise, and no other inmates have seen any changes, Sheldon said.

The Department of Corrections said in January that it was "reviewing its options" in light of Brinkema's order, but declined to comment further.

Sheldon said the effects of solitary confinement are hard to comprehend if you haven't experienced it. The lack of human contact takes its toll in unexpected ways.

"When you hear a noise, you don't know whether the noise is something in your head or something that is actually happening," Sheldon said.

One of Sheldon's clients, William Burns, is Virginia's longest-serving death-row inmate, having been there since 2000. Sheldon has said in court papers that the prolonged solitary confinement has exacerbated his client's mental illness. A judge has barred Burns' execution from going forward, citing his competence to understand the legal proceedings.


Reduce the appeals and execute in 90 days!

It wouldn’t stop VA Death Row inmate Ricky Javon Gray.  Gray killed an entire family: two parents, a 9 year old and 4 year old.  He tied the family up, slit their throats, hit them with a hammer to finish them off, and then lit the house on fire.

Or Mark Lawlor, convicted of raping and then beating a woman to death with a hammer and frying pan in Fairfax. 

Or Ivan Teleguez who stabbed the mother of his child to death in Rockingham County with a fillet knife.

Or William Burns who raped and then beat his mother in law to death in Shenandoah County. 

No guns needed in those cases, although arguably the victims may have benefited from having a firearm handy. 

Go look up how often violent crime in general happens in Germany.  The striking cultural differences between two societies make lessons from Germany inapplicable to Americans.

Just one high profile example:  Germans agreed to pay substantially higher energy bills so they could immediately shut down the country’s nuclear reactors.  Do you see Americans doing that?  People here would rather sit in the dark than volunteer more money for a government energy infrastructure project.

@cmckeonjr - name calling does nothing for your cause. I see no lust for vengeance in CHHIII’s comments. What I do see in your frequent posts is an aversion to civil discourse. You are always right and those who might differ are “lusting for vengeance” or desire to “have the power to turn healthy people into corpses.” End of discussion, as far as you are apparently concerned. Your disdain for anyone who doesn’t think exactly like you is blatantly obvious. If you could ever comprehend the 2nd amendment, like it or not based on valid Supreme Court decisions, and get the to 5th, may be you could channel some of your rage and try to do something positive.

And I know it is yet again inconvenient to your cause, but the William Burns mentioned in this article as Virginia’s longest serving death row inmate did not use a firearm in the commission of the crime that landed him there. He raped, forcibly sodomized and beat to death his 73-year old mother-in-law in Shenandoah County in 1998. She suffered horribly, brutally beaten about the head and upper body with no less than 24 fractured ribs, one of which punctured her heart. And it wasn’t his first rodeo, if you can see past your name-calling and labeling long enough to comprehend that.

If you really want to reduce the incidence of murder–and are not just a bystander lusting for vengeance like CHHIII–there is an effective, proven method to reduce murder: natonal regulation of the possession, storage, handling, and use of guns.

In the United States two-thirds of murder victims die from gunshot wounds. In Britain of 553 only 39 died from gunshot wounds. This is why the rate of murder here is four times the rate of murder there. It is why the rate of murder here is highest in the community of developed nations.

The media reported that last year “only” 33 police officers here died from gunshot wounds. They said “only” because usually it’s more. British patrol officers don’t have guns. Yet last year no British police officer died of gunshot wounds. Only one British police officer died in the line of duty. Someone ran over him.

Eighty million are living in Germany. This is more than two-thirds of the population of the east coast of the United States. Throughout Germany the police fired 85 gunshots during 2011. All but 36 were warning shots. The next year in one American city on one afternoon the Los Angeles police fired over 90 gunshots at an unarmed nineteen-year-old. He died from gunshot wounds.

Send them all a miniature violin, wine, and cheese. I almost cried. Almost.

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