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Commonwealth’s attorney to seek death penalty

Commonwealth’s attorney to seek death penalty

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COLLINSVILLE — Curtis Trumaine Callaway, of Callands, potentially could face a sentence of death or life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted of capital murder in the killing of a Chatham woman.

Henry County Commonwealth’s Attorney Andrew Nester said Tuesday he intends to seek the death penalty in the case.

A grand jury recently indicted 42-year-old Callaway of two counts of capital murder and one count each of rape, arson and abduction with intent to defile. He is charged in the homicide of Juanita Dalton, 74. That means the grand jury determined there is enough evidence to hold a trial.

Rob Lee, executive director of the Charlottesville-based Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center, explained the process in a capital murder trial. Lee referred to the Virginia law that allows death as a punishment for murder when paired with such violent felonies as sexual assault, abduction with intent to defile, or the killing of law enforcement officers.

Lee said if the jury unanimously were to convict a defendant of capital murder, a death sentence would come into play if he is deemed to be a serious threat to society, or the attack was determined to be inhuman:

» There is a probability based upon evidence of the prior history of the defendant or of the circumstances surrounding the commission of the offense of which he is accused that he would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing serious threat to society.

» The defendant’s conduct in committing the offense was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman, in that it involved torture, depravity of mind or aggravated battery to the victim.

If the jury unanimously finds at least one aggravating circumstance, the next step is to sentence the defendant to death or life in prison without possibility of parole, Lee said. He added the jury must consider mitigating evidence.

A Virginia law says mitigating evidence may include such factors as the defendant’s criminal background, his mental state during the crime, or whether the victim was a willing participant.

Lee described the possible mitigating circumstances a jury could consider as “very open-ended.” In reality, it could be anything the jury thought was a mitigating, he said -- for example, the defendant had a particularly difficult background or childhood or served in the military, or the defendant’s family would be supportive if the defendant received a sentence of life without possibility of parole, or that the defendant had behaved appropriately in a prison setting.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, said the last death sentence imposed in Virginia was in 2011, and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision Tuesday.

The defendant, Mark Lawlor, was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in the 2008 rape and beating death of Genevieve Orange, a tenant in a Fairfax County apartment complex, where Lawlor worked as a leasing agent, The Associated Press reported.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the state court erred in excluding a psychologist who did a risk assessment of Lawlor and was going to testify that he would pose a low risk of committing acts of violence in a prison environment, according to the federal appeals court’s opinion. In recommending the death sentence, the jury found there was a probability Lawlor “would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing serious threat to society.”

Dunham said imposition of the death penalty has declined across the United States. “Virginia is one of the states where the decline has been the most dramatic,” he said.

In the 1990s, Virginia was one of only three states that provided life sentence as an alternative to the death sentence without telling the jury the life sentence did not include parole. He said the year after the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in the mid-1990s in a case that life without parole instructions must be provided to jurors, the number of death sentences imposed in Virginia fell by about 70 percent.

He said nationally, death penalties peaked in the 1990s, with more than 300 each year in the mid-‘90s, but the last three years there have been less than 50 annually.

Dunham said, “The biggest factors (in the decline in the death penalty) have been … a regional capital defender system and letting the jury know what its sentence options actually are.”

“Juries are concerned about keeping the public safe,” he said, “and good lawyers are able to show that the defendant, even if he or she has committed a terrible act, is not a monster, has problems and human frailties that don’t require the ultimate punishment. When a defendant has been humanized and the jury realizes there is still a significant alternative punishment, juries increasingly choose mercy.”

In an email last week, Commonwealth’s Attorney Nester alleged: “Mr. Callaway has two charges of capital murder based on the totality of his actions in killing Ms Dalton: one for the abduction and the other for the rape. If the jury convicts him of both, the two charges would be merged for sentencing purposes — i.e. only one death sentence (if the jury so recommends).”

On Feb. 25, the Henry County 911 center received a call about a vehicle fire in the 5000 block of Irisburg Road, in Axton, court documents state. After the fire department extinguished the fire, a body was discovered in the vehicle. Henry County Fire Marshal Lisa Garrett said the evidence was consistent with arson.

The body was sent to the medical examiner’s office and identified as Dalton. The medical examiner ruled the manner of death as a homicide and the cause of death as sharp-force injury, court documents state.

The last telephone number Dalton called came back to a land-line phone in the 1700 block of Water Oak Road, Callands, court documents state. Pittsylvania County deputies and Henry County investigators went to the home and talked to Callaway and his mother. According to court records, Callaway had numerous scratches on his arms and face, and there were red stains on his boots that appeared to be blood.

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