In 1986, the Virginia General Assembly recognized serious deficiencies in the State indigent legal defense system. The legislature created a joint subcommittee to study representation of indigent defendants in Virginia. Part of this study focused on representation in capital cases at trial and in subsequent proceedings. In that same year, the constitutional sufficiency of the system used to provide counsel to indigent criminal defendants seeking post-conviction relief in capital cases was challenged in a class action suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia (Giarratano v. Sielaff).
In 1987, while the State study was still under way, the U.S. Judicial Council amended the Criminal Justice Act to encourage the creation of “Capital Resource Centers” by providing federal funding for these centers to serve as centralized offices providing consultation, training, and assistance to those representing death-sentenced inmates. Creation of those centers was considered the most effective and efficient way in which to improve the quality and fairness of representation in these cases.
The decision of the Giarratano case in 1989 –– acknowledging the need for qualified counsel –– solidified the State subcommittee’s belief that there was an urgent need for some system of legal assistance for defendants in capital cases in Virginia. That same year, the joint subcommittee recommended that a committee be formed by the Virginia Bar Association (VBA) to explore the feasibility of creating a capital resource center. The VBA executive committee, chaired by President F. Claiborne Johnston, Jr., reported that the center was necessary to secure competent representation and education to those attorneys providing representation in the intricacies of capital litigation. The VBA recognized that the creation of the center involved due process issues and not pro- or anti-death penalty issues.
In 1990, the VBA applied for and received a grant from the Virginia Law Foundation of approximately $90,000 in IOLTA funds, contingent upon appropriate federal funding. The VLF funds were intended solely as “seed money” and the General Assembly joint subcommittee acknowledged that funding by the General Assembly would be necessary. The support of both the Western and Eastern District federal judges of Virginia was also obtained.
In 1991, a Board of Directors was formed from a broad cross section of Virginia attorneys who had the requisite knowledge and experience concerning the due process issues involved as well as diverse positions within the judicial system. VCRRC and its board are focused on the issue of fundamental fairness with respect to indigent defense.
In April 1992, federal funding was secured and the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center (formerly the Virginia Post-Conviction Assistance Project) became the nation’s 19th federal death penalty resource center. In April 1993, VCRRC secured funding from the Commonwealth of Virginia through the Virginia State Bar. At that time, approximately seventy percent (70%) of funding came from the federal government, with the remainder coming from State funds.
On April 1, 1996, all federal funding was eliminated for all resource centers in accordance with the Judicial Conference Committee on Defender Services. Despite losing 70% of its operating budget, VCRRC continued to operate with the use of funding from the Virginia State Bar. VCRRC attorneys began to submit vouchers for appointed work in federal cases and contribute all funds received to VCRRC. Today, VCRRC is the only former resource center in the nation which has been able to keep its doors open and continue to operate and be involved in all capital cases in its State after the elimination of federal funding.