By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat who personally opposes the death penalty, vetoed yesterday a set of bills that would have increased the list of crimes eligible for capital punishment, including killing judges or witnesses.
"I don't think we need to expand capital punishment in Virginia to protect human life and keep people safe," Kaine said. "It's just that simple."
Republicans, meanwhile, are considering whether to attempt to override the vetoes during the General Assembly's one-day session April 4. Among the bills vetoed was one that would have revised the so-called triggerman law, which stipulates that only the person who pulls the trigger in a murder case may be eligible for execution. The revision would have included some accomplices.
Some lawmakers believe that restriction hindered prosecutors seeking the death penalty for Washington area sniper John Allen Muhammad. He received a death sentence under a terrorism exception.
Kaine also proposed an amendment to make purely voluntary a new requirement that girls entering the sixth grade be vaccinated against HPV, the virus that can cause cervical cancer. Under the law's language, parents must submit a letter to the school saying that they want to opt out.
Although the virus has been linked to a higher incidence of cervical cancer, the law has been criticized, primarily by conservative groups that object to the requirement because it inoculates against a sexually transmitted disease.
In a statement, Kaine said his amendment would "clarify that a girl's parent or guardian has complete discretion to decide whether their child should be vaccinated."
After Kaine's action on the death penalty bills, Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) urged Republicans to override the veto in the name of public safety.
"I do think the governor was clear during his campaign that he was morally opposed to the death penalty," McDonnell said. "I respect that view, but I do think from a public safety standpoint . . . that this is an important bill."
Kaine, who has said his views stem from his Catholic faith, had indicated in recent months that he was uneasy with the legislation. In interviews, he said he saw no need to expand what is already one of the most aggressive death penalty statutes in the nation. During his campaign, he pledged to uphold the death penalty in accordance with state law but never addressed the issue of expanding crimes eligible for capital punishment.
The move came as no surprise to Kaine's political opponents, who said they felt his personal views were bound to affect his judgment, despite his campaign promise to enforce capital punishment.
"I'm probably the least surprised person in Virginia over this," said former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore, a Republican who lost to Kaine in the 2005 gubernatorial election. "He's been an activist in the anti-death-penalty movement. He should have just come out and said it [during the campaign] and had a fair debate."
Since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, Virginia has executed 98 criminals -- four since Kaine took office in January 2006.
Virginia is second to Texas in the number of executions carried out, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The death penalty is largely supported by Virginia lawmakers, who over the years have steadily expanded the law to include more crimes. Each of the five bills Kaine vetoed yesterday passed with just a dozen or fewer legislators dissenting in each house.
Still, some see a sea change in the way executions are viewed.
"This signals to me that Virginia is feeling the effects of a nationwide disillusionment with the death penalty," said Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax), who opposes the practice and voted against the legislation. "At the very least it is keeping with the moderate view of those who believe in the death penalty."
Staff writers Amy Gardner and Timothy Dwyer contributed to this report.