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Editorial

Death Penalty Politics

Friday, December 24, 2004; Page A16

VIRGINIA ATTORNEY General Jerry W. Kilgore has seen the problem with the death penalty in his state: There's not enough of it. Virginia is hardly a slacker in the capital punishment world. It has put 94 inmates to death in the modern era of executions -- more than any other state save Texas. But Mr. Kilgore, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor next year, objects to the commonwealth's leniency toward those who are involved in a murder but don't actually pull the trigger. So, as part of his legislative agenda for the coming General Assembly session, he has proposed doing away with the so-called "triggerman" requirement. It's a bad idea.

The proposal, Mr. Kilgore has said, is a response to the sniper trial, in which the mastermind of the killings -- John Allen Muhammad -- appears not to have fired the shots. As a result, there was some question as to whether Virginia law would support a death sentence against Mr. Muhammad, and prosecutors relied in part on an anti-terrorism law to make sure death was available as punishment. In addition, Mr. Kilgore's spokesman, Timothy Murtaugh, notes that 23 of 38 states with the death penalty lack comparable restrictions. The broader goal of the legislation, he says, is to "bring us into the majority of death penalty states" by letting prosecutors and juries decide whether a person's involvement in a killing makes him culpable enough for death.

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Only in a political year could the Muhammad case be cited as evidence of the need to make capital punishment easier. Prosecutors did not just rely on the terrorism law; they proved to the jury's satisfaction that Mr. Muhammad satisfied the current triggerman rule. That is, because the sniper team was a two-man operation, both he and Lee Boyd Malvo were deemed the immediate killers for legal purposes. Current law worked just fine for prosecutors.

We oppose the death penalty and wouldn't support any expansion of it. But even capital punishment supporters ought to be wary of efforts to expose more people to execution for acts less immediately connected to someone's death. Virginia prosecutors use new tools aggressively, and Mr. Kilgore's office tenaciously defends capital convictions. If the General Assembly gets rid of the triggerman rule, it will not be long before the courts confront capital cases involving relatively minor players who -- far from being the criminal masterminds most deserving of punishment -- were, say, along for the ride on a robbery that went bad. The General Assembly should be looking for ways to rein in capital punishment, not to make it more capricious.


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