By Candace Rondeaux and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 28, 2006; B04
Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine rejected a plea for clemency yesterday from convicted killer Dexter Lee Vinson, allowing his execution to go forward in the first test of Kaine's stated public resolve to uphold the death penalty despite his personal opposition.
Vinson, 43, was executed by lethal injection last night in Virginia's death chamber for abducting, stabbing and sexually mutilating his ex-girlfriend in Portsmouth in 1997. He was pronounced dead at 9:15 at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, said Larry Traylor, a Department of Corrections spokesman.
"I find no compelling reasons to doubt Mr. Vinson's guilt or to invalidate the sentence recommended by the jury and imposed, and affirmed, by the courts," Kaine said in a brief statement issued 2 1/2 hours before Vinson was put to death. "Accordingly, I decline to intervene."
With those words, Kaine made good on a promise he spoke directly and repeatedly to Virginians last year at campaign rallies and in television ads: that his personal and long-standing opposition to the death penalty, based on his Catholic faith, would not prevent him from allowing the ultimate punishment to be carried out.
Kaine's Republican opponent in the governor's race, former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore, had repeatedly slammed Kaine for his stance on the death penalty, and ran ads featuring the victims of heinous crimes. In one, the father of a crime victim said Kaine would not have executed Adolph Hitler.
But Kaine responded with ads of his own, in which he vowed to enforce Virginia's capital punishment laws. "My faith teaches life is sacred," he said to the camera. "But I take my oath of office seriously, and I'll enforce the death penalty."
The campaign-trail bashing proved a boon for Kaine, whose public declarations about his personal faith appeared to bolster -- not hurt -- his numbers in the polls and helped lift him to victory in November.
On Thursday, the new governor waited in his third-floor office across from the state Capitol to hear the outcome of Vinson's final court appeals, and to weigh Vinson's request for clemency. An aide said he consulted frequently with his chief counsel, Larry Roberts, and a small "brain trust of lawyers of his own choosing."
Delacey Skinner, Kaine's communications director, said, "This is a decision that he makes alone."
The clemency petition called on the governor to commute the convicted murderer's sentence to life in prison without parole. Vinson's attorneys contended that a key witness in the case had lied about seeing Vinson kill the victim, Angela Felton. They also disputed findings about forensic evidence in his case and said he deserved a new trial because his Portsmouth defense attorneys had a conflict of interest.
Days before the execution, a Vatican representative and two Virginia Catholic clergymen -- Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde and Bishop Francis DiLorenzo of Richmond -- also urged Kaine to halt Vinson's execution, calling the death penalty "unjustified."
Years ago, Kaine, who once worked with a Catholic mission in Honduras, echoed that same view when as a young lawyer in private practice he defended two death row inmates. In 1987, as he awaited the execution of one of his clients, Kaine told The Washington Post that "murder is wrong in the gulag, in Afghanistan, in Soweto, in the mountains of Guatemala, in Fairfax County . . . and even the Spring Street Penitentiary."
Shortly before Vinson was put to death yesterday, some observers speculated that political pressure would push Kaine to deny Vinson's clemency petition. But during a recent radio interview Kaine eschewed the suggestion that politics might play a role in his first death penalty decision and called Vinson's crime "very gruesome."
"The pressure of trying to make the right decision about whether there is or is not doubt about guilt when somebody's life is at stake is so much more pressure than whatever the political pressure of the day would be," Kaine said.
Yesterday's execution marked the first in Virginia since September 2004.
A Portsmouth jury convicted Vinson in 1998 of capital murder, carjacking, abduction with intent to defile and sexual penetration with an inanimate object, a year after the severely mutilated body of Felton, a 25-year-old mother of three, was found in a vacant house in Portsmouth.
In the years since her daughter's mutilated body was found wrapped in a dirty wool blanket in Portsmouth, Frances Peace has imagined Vinson's death a million times. She said she always thought she would be there to witness his execution. But days beforehand she was unsure if that's what her daughter would have wanted or if she could even summon the strength to attend.
"I want to be there for her. But I don't think it would be good for me to go," Peace said. "I think that's what she's telling me -- 'Mom, don't go. It's alright.' It's not going to bring her back."
Vinson entered the chamber two minutes before his scheduled execution. Several of Felton's family members attended the execution as witnesses. He offered no resistance as several guards strapped him to the gurney. Asked if he had any last words, Vinson shook his head and declined to make a statement. The blue curtain to the witness chamber closed, and reopened eight minutes later.
Researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.