By Candace Rondeaux and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 9, 2006
Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine delayed the execution of triple-killer Percy Levar Walton yesterday, a move that political adversaries said renews questions about the governor's commitment to enforce the death penalty.
In a statement issued a little more than an hour before Walton's scheduled execution, Kaine said he would conduct an independent inquiry to determine whether Walton is too mentally ill to be put to death.
"Due to the history of judicial concern about his mental status, the claims in Walton's clemency petition are entitled to serious consideration," Kaine (D) wrote, ordering a new execution date in six months. "It would be imprudent to either proceed with the execution or grant clemency without further review."
Jennifer Givens, one of Walton's attorneys, said that she was pleased with Kaine's decision and that an inquiry would confirm that Walton's mental difficulties are severe enough to bar his execution.
"I was hoping that the governor would do the right thing, and he has. He's recognized the seriousness of executing someone with an IQ of 66 and who is severely mentally ill," Givens said. "I have complete confidence that once he gets the findings he will determine that a commutation is appropriate."
But Kaine's critics said the governor's decision to delay the execution is a slap at the judicial system that convicted Walton, sentenced him to die and later allowed that punishment to stand through years of appeals.
"During the campaign in 2005, a lot of people questioned the governor's commitment to enforcing the death penalty," said Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R). "[Kaine's decision] is going to renew the debate about this governor's willingness to enforce the death penalty when it's clearly in order."
Former Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, whose political advertisements originally questioned whether Kaine would allow executions to proceed, said the governor's actions are misplaced and come too late.
"That just defeats the entire judicial process," said Kilgore (R), who lost to Kaine last fall. "A jury determined the case. They had many appeals in court after court."
Walton, 27, is the second death-row inmate to submit a clemency petition to Kaine since he became governor in January. The first was executed April 27 after Kaine declined to intervene. In Walton's case, Kaine stopped short of clemency.
In his statement, Kaine said he was not satisfied that Walton has received a complete mental evaluation. A spokesman for his office declined to offer details about how Kaine intends to conduct the inquiry, saying only that the governor will cooperate with the attorney general's office and Walton's attorneys to develop a fair process.
J. Tucker Martin, a spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R), said in a written statement that the courts' previous findings that Walton is competent to be executed should stand, but he said McDonnell accepts the governor's right to exercise his authority.
The decision immediately prompted questions about Kaine's campaign promise to uphold Virginia's death penalty laws despite his personal opposition to capital punishment.
Kaine, who is Catholic, drew criticism from Kilgore and others for his opposition in a state that widely favors it. In searing comments and campaign ads, Kilgore accused Kaine, who as a lawyer had represented two death-row inmates, of being soft on criminals.
Kaine spokesman Kevin Hall said the governor made his final decision yesterday morning as he began his day with a trip to the White House and before discussions about the unfinished state budget. Hall rejected any connection to politics.
"It demeans the seriousness of this process to reduce it to a crass political equation," Hall said.
Still, the move to delay Walton's execution could have political ramifications for Kaine, who has struggled for months to sell his transportation proposal to a skeptical Republican majority in the legislature.
But Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said that although Kaine's action may be controversial, its political impact may be softened by his decision to allow the execution of convicted killer Dexter Lee Vinson.
Walton pleaded guilty in 1997 to killing Jessie and Elizabeth Kendrick, an elderly Danville couple, and his neighbor Archie Moore. No competency hearing was held before the death penalty was issued.
Legal and psychiatric experts debated for years whether Walton's mental condition prevented him from understanding that he had been sentenced to death for the killings. During a 2003 hearing, Walton misstated key facts about his case and repeatedly gave nonsensical answers when questioned by lawyers. His case received widespread attention after a psychiatrist at that proceeding testified that Walton believed he would ride a motorcycle to Burger King after he was put to death.
Attorneys for Walton said in their clemency petition that Walton began showing signs of mental instability when he was about 16; the killings occurred a month after Walton's 18th birthday. In 1996, he scored 90 on an IQ test; seven years later, he scored 66. Psychiatrists generally consider someone with an IQ below 70 to be mentally retarded.
Last year, Kaine's predecessor, then-Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), commuted the death sentence of Robin Lovitt to life in prison. Virginia governors have granted clemency in seven cases since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976.
The Kendricks' daughter, Barbara K. Case of Brandon, Miss., said yesterday that she would be satisfied with a life sentence for Walton. "I've said all along that I think that's a worse punishment, to be in prison for life without parole," Case said.
The hours leading up to Walton's scheduled execution were tense. His attorneys won a reprieve Wednesday when a federal judge in Norfolk halted the execution pending a Supreme Court decision about the constitutionality of lethal injection. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond vacated the stay.
About eight hours before Walton's scheduled 9 p.m. execution, his attorneys filed an appeal for a stay with the Supreme Court on the lethal injection question. Just 90 minutes before the execution, the high court denied the appeal without comment.
Kaine's decision is likely to reverberate in Virginia for some time as his office conducts the inquiry into Walton's mental health and others debate Kaine's position on capital punishment.
Bolling said the move is unusual and uncalled for.
"This execution has been scheduled for a long time. If the governor felt that an independent review of his mental status needed to be completed, he should have done that long before now."
Kilgore, who is in a private law practice, said he was not surprised by Kaine's action.
"It's predictable. A lot of things have been predictable, whether it's taxes or the death penalty," he said. "He complained dramatically about some of the death penalty ads I ran saying he was against the death penalty. I guess I've been proven right."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.