Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb's uncharacteristic show of emotion last week over his experiences in Vietnam is certain to become one of those linchpin events that will mark his time as governor.
Coming as the country marks the 10th anniversary of the end of that divisive war, Robb's unexpectedly revealing discussion of an issue he studiously had avoided was a moment in his public life not likely to be repeated.
Still, the issue of Vietnam at his news conference overshadowed another important issue for the governor -- the mental anquish and fortitude it takes to serve, in effect, as the state's chief executioner at a time of an increasing use of the death penalty in Virginia.
He also was apparently the first public official in the state to admonish the noisy, mostly white crowds that gather and chant ugly cries of vengeance outside the state penitentiary here whenever there is an execution.
Such crowd reaction "dehumanizes the process and takes away what little dignity remains" for the person being executed, Robb said, noting that he was "personally offended by some of the things I have seen." A few moments later he said such displays "have concerned me on a number of occasions."
Like many governors, Robb has the power of executive clemency to commute death sentences to life in prison without parole.
But Robb supports the death penalty and has not used that power in the three executions carried out during his administration. Nor is he expected to do so in the remaining months of his term, when three more executions may take place.
Robb repeated that there are "certain types of crimes for which I simply feel there is no adequate alternative" to the death penalty. He says he will limit any interference on his part to those cases in which there are "extraordinary circumstances" that he has not yet seen.
While he sometimes gets hundreds of individual appeals to spare a condemned person's life -- and some urging an execution -- Robb said that "public reaction would not be a factor" in any decision he makes in such cases.
Instead, Robb completes an exhaustive review of each case history with aide Philip Abraham. Robb says his main role is to make certain that a condemned person has had full access to the courts.
When "capital punishment has been ordered by the court . . . I would hope all persons would respect the dignity" of the human being, Robb said during the news conference, which came just hours before a legal stay put off the execution of Willie Lloyd Turner, convicted of the murder of a jewelry store owner.
Robb, who had just retuned from a European trade mission, called the news conference only after it appeared likely that Turner would not be executed.
"It's a very difficult time," said Robb, referring to the somber preparations for death during which Robb said he limits his public activities to concentrate fully on his ultimate duty -- instructing prison officials to carry out the death sentence.
Opponents of capital punishment, such as Virginians Against the Death Penalty, argue that such sentences are immoral, unfair and serve no useful criminal justice purpose, and that legitimate concerns for victims' rights are not helped by imposing vengeful "legal homicide."
Asked about the fairness of the death penalty -- studies show that blacks and poor persons are far more likely to be executed -- Robb said fairness "is essentially an unanswerable question."
He explained that the decisions to seek the death penalty under specific Virginia statutes is reached through a variety of prosecutors, judges and juries that interpret the same state laws either harshly or leniently.
"I'm acknowledging in the administration of justice that we have to look at each individual case," Robb said.
Under Virginia law, according to David Hathcock, press secretary for state Attorney General Gerald L. Baliles, there are only a few specific types of crimes -- such as multiple murder -- in which prosecutors may seek the death penalty. There is no criminal statute under which a prosecutor must ask for the death penalty.