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Stan and Phyllis Rosenbluth will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this year. Party planning will likely begin soon, but it will all be bittersweet. They vividly remember their 40th anniversary, before their son Richie and his wife, Becky, were gunned down in 1993. Calvin Bryant is a soft-spoken teen-ager from Chesapeake, Va., who never finished his senior year of high school and saw his dreams of college slip away. Only a few months into his final year, Bryant was arrested on robbery and capital murder charges. Having spent the last 14 months in the Chesapeake City Jail in Chesapeake, Va., he finds comfort in his lawyer’s assurances that his case may soon be dropped by the prosecution. The Rosenbluths and Bryant lead completely different lives, with one common thread: Each were among the 200 or so people who wrote to the Virginia Supreme Court last November to comment on the court’s proposed amendment to the 21-day rule in death penalty cases. Currently, defendants have only 21 days after conviction to introduce new evidence seeking new trials. The state’s high court has proposed eliminating the 21-day deadline in death penalty cases. The proposal comes after Virginia’s capital system, long seen as one of the toughest in the country, has been criticized in the wake of the exoneration of one condemned man and other controversies. The rule has polarized people on both sides of the death penalty issue, leaving the court and the General Assembly — which convenes this week and has expressed interest in addressing the 21-day rule issue, as well as other aspects of death penalty procedure — with what may be one of the toughest decisions they will called upon to make this spring. The Rosenbluth’s tidy Arlington, Va., condominium is filled with family pictures. The wedding photo of a smiling, dark-haired Richard and a fairer, red-haired Rebecca Rosenbluth — Richie and Becky, as they are called — sits on an end table in the living room next to the leather couch. Nearby are pictures of the Rosenbluths’ grandchildren, who were 6 and 3 years old when their aunt and uncle were shot to death during a robbery at their Chesterfield County home. “It just took our whole lives and turned them around,” says Stan of the murders. “We’re not like we used to be, and we will never be.” Two men — Mark Sheppard and Andre Graham — were arrested and charged with the murders. They had tried to sell many of Richie’s and Becky’s belongings, including jewelry and luggage, putting the police on their trail, says Stan. Sheppard received the death penalty and was executed in January 1999. Graham was sentenced to life in prison, but was sentenced to death in a separate case and executed in December 1999. After hearing about the murder, the Rosenbluths say they became numb. “You’re traumatized because of the event — psychologically, physically. You’re walking around in a fog,” recalls Stan. “Now you’re entering into a system and world you don’t know.” It was this abrupt introduction into the criminal justice system that motivated the Rosenbluths to take an active stance on victims’ rights issues. Back when Richie and Becky were killed, there were very few resources and rights for victims. “Victims had nothing,” says Phyllis. Just a year after the murders, the Rosenbluths — along with more than 20 other survivors — helped form the victims’ rights group Virginians United Against Crime. The murder trials for Sheppard and Graham were split. At the first trial, remembers Stan, both he and his wife were called to the stand to identify the items stolen from Richie and Becky. “In a few minutes, the judge said, ‘You can’t stay in the courtroom,’ ” because the Rosenbluths were material witnesses, recalls Stan. “ What [the defense attorney] can call us for, we don’t know. We didn’t witness the crime.” They were excluded from the courtroom until the Chesterfield Circuit Court judge, the commonwealth’s attorney, and the defense attorney came to an agreement, says Stan. He and Phyllis were permitted to view the trial from the court’s media room, which is not visible to the jury. When it came time to sentence Sheppard and Graham, the Rosenbluths encountered what they considered another affront: the timing of the oral impact statements. “The victim survivors could never address the jury” until after they had handed down their sentence, says Stan. “If the guilty person’s allowed to give mitigating statements … why shouldn’t the jury hear the impact of the crime on the family?” As president of VUAC, Stan has tackled these issues head-on. He says the organization presented legislation to the Virginia General Assembly, which passed it in 1998, to give victims the opportunity to present oral impact statements to the jury before it deliberates on a criminal’s sentence. And with VUAC’s pushing, laws prohibiting all witnesses, including victims, from sitting in the courtroom have been modified. “Now we have a right to sit in the courtroom if the judge decides we would in no way materially affect the right of the accused,” Stan says. VUAC’s next challenge: the proposed amendment to the 21-day rule. The Rosenbluths worry that the Virginia Supreme Court’s suggested arrangement, which sets no deadline for when death row inmates could introduce new evidence in an attempt to get a new trial, would indefinitely prolong what is an excruciating time for victims and survivors. There were “six years’ worth of appeals” by Sheppard and Graham, says Stan. “It’s a long time, but that’s a really short time in the system.” “No time limit at all, as I said in my letter, is open-ended litigation … . How can the sentence be carried out when there’s no end?” he says. As a compromise, the Rosenbluths have asked the court to give death row inmates 60 or 90 additional days to introduce new evidence. “As far as I’m concerned, the way the system is now, there are at least seven steps of appeals. Granted, there are only 21 days to bring new evidence, but still, that doesn’t preclude the last step of clemency by the governor,” says Stan. Many prosecutors have taken a harder stance — on both the proposal and the court’s decision to suggest the amendment. For example, the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys requested that the court not only limit the time for seeking a new trial but also cap the number of petitions that defendants can file. And echoing concerns that laced letters of other prosecutors, Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley questioned the constitutionality of the proposed rule. Acknowledging the current debate over the possibility of executing an innocent person, Rosenbluth replies, “I’m not going to say that it’s never happened. But, boy, with this system in Virginia, it’s tough.” Even if the court or the General Assembly sees things Stan’s way and limits the time for introducing new evidence, the Rosenbluths know they will feel only a small amount of satisfaction in the outcome. “It doesn’t bring back Richard,” says Stan. “It doesn’t bring back Becky.” “I am a 19-year-old currently incarcerated in Chesapeake Virginia on one charge of capital murder and I am concerned about the ’21-day rule,’ ” began Calvin Bryant’s handwritten letter to the Virginia Supreme Court. In neat print on lined paper, Bryant explained why he thought the proposed rule should be expanded to cover all defendants, not just those sentenced to death: “ How can the state Supreme Court drop the ’21-day rule’ to help an inmate on death-row but not an inmate serving life in prison for capital murder, in which both were convicted of the same crime and both will die in prison. How can you put a limit on how long a man has to prove his innocence.” Bryant is far from the only one who voiced that opinion. Of the more than 160 letters sent to the court, dozens were sent by defense attorneys or organizations urging a similar expansion, including former state Attorney General William Broaddus, now in the Richmond, Va., office of McGuireWoods. The court has not indicated when it will make a decision on the proposal, and the General Assembly may well act before the court does. As he sits in the visiting room at Chesapeake’s shiny new jail, Bryant is quiet and reserved. Tears well up in his eyes. Thinner than when his mug shot was taken, his hair now short and unkempt, Bryant is able to crack a small smile when talking about his friends and family and his life before prison. But during much of a half-hour interview, he was crying. “I liked art, all different kinds,” says Bryant, who says he was also interested in music during high school. “I was a senior. I was planning on going to college,” he says. “But then I got locked up on this charge, and now I’m just waiting.” According to Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot, Bryant and two others tried to rob 20-year-old Antonio Miller in Chesapeake in November 1999. Bryant is charged with shooting Miller several times while committing the robbery. Bryant’s been waiting for 14 months now — his arrest took place at school just one week after the shooting. But he doesn’t have much longer to go. His trial is scheduled for Jan. 22. He won’t discuss the facts of his case due to his pending trial date, but he does hold out hope for a favorable outcome, based on recent discussions with his attorney. “The way my case is going, I’ve got a good feeling it’s going to get dismissed,” Bryant says. In the meantime, Bryant spends much of his time looking forward to weekend visits with his sisters and brothers. The youngest of four, he says they’re a close-knit group — the oldest is only seven years Bryant’s senior. When the weekends are over and he’s finished his brief phone calls with his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Bryant is left with a lot of free time — time to contemplate. “It’s hard because everybody knows my personality,” says Bryant, who calls the arrest a surprise. “It’s hard because I can’t get with my family every day,” he says. “It’s hard.” To help pass the time, Bryant spends the majority of the day in the library. “That’s all we’ve got,” he says of the prison facilities. “That’s all I’ve really been doing — reading books.” And during one of his trips to the library, he read an article about the proposed amendment to the 21-day rule. After talking to his attorney about the implications of the proposal on a case like his — where the death penalty has been taken off the table due to his good record, but he faces a life in prison without the possibility of parole — he decided he needed to write to the court. “The main reason I wrote the letter is not for me, but for others,” says Bryant. “It could happen to anybody. “Somebody maybe saw something that they don’t think is very important,” he says, pointing out that such evidence might not come to light by the time of the trial. “But it could save my life.”

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