By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 27, 2007
RICHMOND, Jan. 26 -- The House of Delegates voted Friday to expand the use of the death penalty in Virginia by making accomplices and judge killers eligible for execution, virtually assuring that the measures will go to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who personally opposes capital punishment.
The legislation to increase the use of capital punishment, which comes at a time when other states are considering repealing the death penalty, would make accomplices to a murder and anyone who kills a judge or a court witness eligible for the death penalty. The Senate passed nearly identical versions of the bills earlier in the week.
Kaine, a Catholic, will now face his first decision on whether to expand capital punishment. He has said he will uphold the death penalty despite his personal opposition. Since taking office, he has signed four death warrants but twice delayed the execution of a murderer suspected of being mentally ill. A spokesman said Friday that Kaine has not taken a position on the bills.
Under the state's triggerman rule, enacted three decades ago, only the person who carries out a killing can be executed. Exceptions have been made over time -- such as for crimes of terrorism, murder for hire or drug conspiracy -- but the rule complicated the state's efforts to try Washington area sniper John Allen Muhammad.
Because there was disagreement about whether Muhammad or Lee Boyd Malvo fired the rifle during the 2002 spree that killed 10 people in the Washington area, prosecutors could try Muhammad on a capital offense only after they built a case using the terrorism exception. Muhammad was convicted and sentenced to death in 2003.
The revision of the triggerman law, approved 83 to 11, allows for the death penalty to be imposed if the accomplice has the same intent as the killer.
"I think it is an important step to make sure that people who participate in a capital crime will understand they will all share the ultimate punishment," said Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), sponsor of the bill.
All three death penalty bills were endorsed by the Virginia Crime Commission, a panel that advises the legislature on crime issues. Opponents of capital punishment argue that Virginia should not be expanding its death penalty when courts and lawmakers in some states, including Maryland, are considering moratoriums out of concern that it is unfairly applied. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said Thursday that he would work to repeal the death penalty.
"In Virginia, we seem to have an insatiable desire to expand the death penalty," said Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax), who voted against the bills. "It's too bad we have not caught on to what other states recognize and consider a moratorium."
Gilbert countered that the changes would bring Virginia in line with most other states that allow capital punishment, the majority of which permit execution of accomplices.
Virginia is second in the nation to Texas in executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Since 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, Virginia has put 98 convicts to death.
Besides the death penalty, delegates also tackled the issue of abortion Friday.
By a vote of 71 to 27, the House voted to make it a misdemeanor for someone to force, coerce or intimidate a woman into having an abortion. The crime is elevated to a felony if the woman is younger than 18. The bill now goes to the Senate, which historically has resisted abortion legislation.
After the abortion vote, House Republicans blocked a bill by Del. C. Charles Caputo (D-Fairfax) to prohibit teenagers from talking on a cellphone while driving.
The bill passed the Science and Technology Committee this week with the support of 11 Republicans, including Dels. Timothy D. Hugo (Fairfax) and Jackson H. Miller (Manassas).
But on the House floor Friday, the 11 delegates joined the rest of their GOP colleagues in voting to table the bill after House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) said it needed closer scrutiny.
Caputo said the Republican caucus decided to kill his bill because it was sponsored by a Democrat -- a charge Griffith denied.
"They are playing politics with our children," Caputo said.