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Death Sentence Commuted Jurors Renounced Verdict As Man’s Final Meal Was Served

Not a single death sentence was commuted in the United States last year. But Gov. George F. Allen of Virginia granted that rare gift last week after a highly publicized campaign by a condemned man’s lawyer, who tracked down jurors in the case and persuaded several of them to renounce the verdict.

One juror acknowledged in a sworn statement that she had voted to convict based on “a gut feeling” rather than on convincing evidence.

The final meal had been delivered to the inmate, Joseph P. Payne Sr., on Thursday when he learned while watching the 6 o’clock news that his execution by lethal injection, scheduled for 9 p.m., had been canceled.

Allen commuted the death sentence to life in prison without possibility of parole. The relief came at a cost. Payne, who has maintained his innocence, was required to sign a statement saying he would not seek a new trial.

“I told Joe when we started this clemency effort that this would be the best he could possibly hope for,” said Payne’s lawyer, Paul F. Khoury of Washington. “This is certainly preferable to the alternative.”

Richard C. Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit group in Washington, said that about 35 death sentences had been commuted in the United States since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Recently, the pace has been about one a year, he said.


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