Va. Governor Commutes Death Sentence

Percy L. Walton had been sentenced to death for murdering three people. He will now spend life in prison.
Percy L. Walton had been sentenced to death for murdering three people. He will now spend life in prison. (AP)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has stopped tonight's execution of triple murderer Percy L. Walton and commuted his sentence to life in prison without parole, saying that Walton is mentally incompetent and that putting him to death would be unconstitutional.

In a lengthy statement yesterday, Kaine (D) said he canceled the execution, scheduled for 9 p.m. at Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, because "one cannot reasonably conclude that Walton is fully aware of the punishment he is about to suffer and why he is to suffer it." It was the first time that Kaine has commuted a death sentence since taking office in 2006.

Walton pleaded guilty in 1997 to killing Jessie and Elizabeth Kendrick, an elderly Danville couple, and his neighbor Archie Moore. His attorneys have contended for years that Walton is mentally ill, and that his condition has deteriorated while he has been on death row.

Family members of the victims said they saw no justification for mercy.

"I don't think he deserves it," said Irene Jurscaga, Elizabeth Kendrick's sister, who is writing Kaine a protest letter. "He broke into my sister's house and killed them execution style. He had them kneel. He knew what he was doing. . . . He knew how to kill and hide his gun and take my brother-in-law's car. My sister begged him for her life."

An attorney for Walton, Jennifer Givens, welcomed the commutation. "Percy Walton is extremely mentally ill and profoundly impaired, and so obviously I think the governor acted appropriately and compassionately in granting our clemency request," she said.

Kaine is a Catholic who personally opposes the death penalty but has said he will enforce the law. Since taking office, he has allowed five executions and delayed Walton's execution twice and another inmate's briefly.

His decision to block Walton's death by lethal injection continues a long-standing debate over capital punishment in Virginia, which had been effectively put on hold in the fall because the Supreme Court was debating the constitutionality of the procedure. After the court ruled it was not cruel and unusual punishment, Virginia resumed executions last month with the lethal injection of killer Kevin Green. Virginia has executed 99 people since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, second only to Texas.

Kaine had delayed Walton's execution in 2006 to allow for an independent evaluation of his mental condition and competence. Based on that evaluation, the governor delayed the execution an additional 18 months, saying that Walton was severely mentally impaired but that it was possible his condition could improve.

That didn't happen, Kaine said in his statement yesterday. He said that there "has been no discernible improvement in Walton's condition" over the past 18 months and that "he lives in a self-imposed state of isolation that includes virtually no interest in receiving or understanding information." He said Walton has nothing in his cell other than a mattress, a pillow and a blanket, has no personal effects and "shows no interest in contact with the outside world."

Kaine said that in reaching his decision, he remained mindful of "the terrible injustice that Walton perpetrated" against his victims. "There is no doubt that Walton killed three innocent people over a two-week period in November 1996," Kaine said. "The victims met a fate they did not deserve and the families of the victims have suffered greatly from the loss of their loved ones."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that execution of the mentally ill violates the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The court said death-row inmates must be able to comprehend that they are about to be executed and why. But the high court left it up to states to define who is sane.

Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) agreed that "a person who is mentally incompetent may not be executed." But he said he opposed Kaine's decision because the courts had rejected that argument in Walton's case. "My thoughts and prayers are with the families of Walton's three murder victims . . . who have suffered for more than 11 years," McDonnell said.

Staff reporter Maria Glod and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company