RICHMOND, FEB. 12 -- Virginia House Speaker A.L. Philpott (D-Bassett) denounced as "more inhuman than the death penalty" today a proposal by Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder to require sentences of life without parole as the only alternative to capital punishment for persons convicted of first-degree murder.
The speaker warned that Wilder's idea would create "impossible conditions" for corrections officials by turning life-term prisoners into "animals who can't be controlled."
Philpott's surprise testimony before the House Courts of Justice Committee came as a bombshell to Wilder's proposal, and cast doubt on whether it would get out of committee when a vote is taken Saturday.
The anticrime measure is a key part of Wilder's legislative package put forward in the year before his expected campaign for governor. His legislation eliminating sales tax on nonprescription drugs also is endangered.
"Sometimes the only way to protect the citizenry," Wilder testified, "is to keep some people out of society . . . . None of us can make absolute promises of safety and security, but we can send the message that the wanton disregard for life exhibited by capital murders is inexcusable."
Wilder said the law now results in "gross disparities in sentencing." Juries that find a person guilty of first-degree murder must choose between a death sentence and life imprisonment. The latter can mean that a prisoner will serve as little as 12 years, "while the other is gone forever," he said.
Wilder said more concern should be shown to the families of murder victims than to killers' relatives. To support his cause, Wilder arranged to have relatives of several victims in the audience. One, Alexander M. Cochran, the father of A.M. (Sandy) Cochran III, a state trooper who was slain in Fairfax last year, testified in behalf of the bill.
Wilder also criticized legislation approved by the Senate that would change the method of carrying out capital punishment from electrocution to lethal injection.
Del. Clinton Miller (R-Woodstock) denounced Wilder's bill as "draconian" and suggested a better solution would be to require murderers to serve longer sentences before being eligible for parole.
Del. Bernard S. Cohen (D-Alexandria) agreed, noting that the average age of persons convicted of murder is 28. He urged that murderers be eligible for parole at age 65.
The appearance of the speaker before a legislative committee is almost as rare as testimony from the lieutenant governor, and their respective remarks today were in marked contrast to their previous positions on capital murder.
Philpott pointed out that he had had sponsored the legislation that reintroduced the death penalty after the Supreme Court lifted its ban, and had also once sponsored a bill identical to Wilder's.
As a state senator in the 1970s, Wilder opposed the death penalty. But he said today he had dropped his opposition after he was satisfied it was no longer being disproportionately applied to blacks.
After Philpott testified, a shaken Del. Ralph L. Axselle Jr. (D-Henrico), who introduced the proposal because the lieutenant governor cannot personally sponsor legislation, successfully moved to defer a vote on the bill so that amendments might be considered.