Fish Attorneys Win Pro Bono Death Penalty Case in Virginia Supreme Court

September 18, 2009 - Fish & Richardson won a important ruling in the Virginia Supreme Court by establishing that the statutory verdict form used by sentencing juries in Virginia capital murder cases was unconstitutional.

The case involved Alfredo Prieto, a prisoner who had been sentenced to death in Virginia. Under Virginia Law, a prisoner may be sentenced to death only if a jury unanimously finds the existence of at least one "aggravating factor" prescribed by statute - that the crime was "vile and depraved" or that the defendant is a "continuing threat to society." However even when the jury finds the existence of aggravating factors, it still has the option to recommend a sentence of life imprisonment without parole.

In Mr. Prieto's case, the jury was provided with a verdict form - authorized by Virginia statute - that was flawed in two respects. It gave the jury the mistaken impression that neither aggravating factor needed to be found unanimously, so long as all jurors found that at least one of the aggravating factors was present. The verdict form was also flawed because it failed to properly inform the jury of its option to impose a life sentence even in the presence of aggravating factors.

In September 18, 2009 decision, the Virginia Supreme Court agreed that the verdict form used by the sentencing jury had been constitutionally flawed, and order that Mr. Prieto be resentenced.

Also working on the case was Fish associate Noah Graubert. The case was referred to Fish by the American Bar Association Death Penalty Representation Project.