House Votes to Repeal 'Triggerman Rule'

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 14, 2006

RICHMOND, Feb. 13 -- The Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill Monday that proponents said would make it easier for prosecutors to seek the death penalty in capital cases such as the sniper killings that terrorized the Washington area in 2002.

House Bill 782 would repeal Virginia's "triggerman rule," which holds that only a gunman can be convicted of capital murder, not those who helped carry out the crime.

The bill, which passed 83 to 16, now moves to the Senate, where it faces stronger opposition.

The statute became an issue in the trial of sniper John Allen Muhammad when his defense attorneys argued that the law should exclude the potential death penalty for Muhammad because his accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, pulled the trigger.

Commonwealth's attorneys argued on behalf of the state that Muhammad's involvement in the murders was so comprehensive that his role was equivalent to that of Malvo's. The Virginia Supreme Court agreed, ruling last year against Muhammad and upholding his death sentence.

Supporters of the bill said removing the rule would help prosecutors move forward expeditiously in capital murder cases, in which they must prove that a defendant was principally responsible for the killing.

"The Muhammad and Malvo cases brought the inconsistencies of the current law to light," said C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), a part-time prosecutor who sponsored the measure. He called the triggerman rule an "unnecessary restriction," saying it "limits the prosecution's ability to treat equally guilty defendants in the same manner."

Several senators said the effort was too broad. The bill was not endorsed by the Virginia State Crime Commission, which often studies such issues and provides recommendations to lawmakers. Opponents have said such legislation would dramatically increase the reach of the death penalty.

"I'm not sure that it's really necessary," said Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), chairman of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee and the Crime Commission.

He pointed out that there are several exceptions to the triggerman rule, such as one that allows the death penalty to be sought in murder-for-hire schemes.

Others added that if the proposal is approved by the legislature and signed into law, it could lead a court to declare Virginia's death penalty statutes unconstitutional. They said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled a death penalty is constitutional only if it is applied in a limited number of circumstances.

"It's vague in who this applies to," said Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "The law that takes someone's life has to be crafted in such a way that there are no doubts of its application."

The sniper case involved the slayings of 10 people and the wounding of three across the area in fall 2002. Virginia law forced prosecutors in the case to turn to a terrorism statute because they were unable to say for sure which of the two defendants fired the fatal shots.

Muhammad was found guilty and sentenced to death in the killing of Dean H. Meyers in Prince William County. Malvo was sentenced to life in prison for shooting Linda Franklin in Fairfax County.

Supporters of the House bill, including Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R), maintained that the bill would give prosecutors necessary tools and would not violate the U.S. Constitution.

"The attorney general believes this is common-sense legislation," said J. Tucker Martin, McDonnell's press secretary. "We need to make sure no one slips through the cracks."

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