ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) - A federal judge has ruled that Virginia cannot automatically hold prisoners convicted of capital murder on "death row," where the harsh conditions and solitary confinement amount to an unconstitutional denial of due process.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema issued the ruling in November on behalf of Alfredo Prieto, sentenced to death in 2010 by a Fairfax County jury for the 1988 murder of two George Washington University students.
At a hearing Friday, she rejected a request from Virginia that she temporarily delay implementation of her order. She told Virginia lawyers that inmates awaiting execution can be held in solitary confinement if there is a particular need. But she said the current policy of automatically keeping those inmates in solitary confinement on death row violates their right to due process.
Virginia argued that death row inmates are inherently different from other inmates, and must be treated differently from the general population.
The state also said that running a prison is a complicated task that does not lend itself to judicial micromanagement. Complying with Brinkema's order "would present a serious security risk," lawyers for the Virginia Office of the Attorney General wrote.
But Brinkema said that automatically imposing harsh conditions of confinement on an inmate for an indefinite period of time touches on an inmate's constitutional right to due process.
She wrote that the solitary confinement that is a way of life on death row is especially harsh. Prieto "is left alone in a small cell nearly every hour of every day," Brinkema wrote, and the isolation results in a significant hardship for prisoners on whom it is imposed.
According to court papers, a death row inmate is kept alone in his cell 24 hours a day, with the only exceptions a 10-minute break three days a week for a shower and an hour of exercise five days a week in an outdoor cell not much bigger than his indoor cell. Inmates are allowed to purchase a television set and a compact disc player for their cells, and have access to some books from the prison library.
Brinkema said that the problem is exacerbated by the extended amount of time prisoners spend on death row. A prisoner could easily spend more than a decade on death row while the appeals process plays out, and never have an opportunity to join the general population.
At Friday's hearing, Brinkema said the requirements she is imposing on Virginia put it in line with the policies used in most other states covered by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Virginia has the option of appealing Brinkema's ruling to that court.
The American Civil Liberties Union says Brinkema's ruling is the first of its kind nationally.