Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry W. Kilgore proposed Monday that accomplices to murder be eligible for the death penalty.
Kilgore, who offered the idea last year while serving as Virginia's attorney general, said the move would allow prosecutors to charge gang leaders and others who order killings with capital murder. He included the proposal as part of an initiative that he said would curb gang violence.
"Gangs are the modern-day mob," Kilgore said in a statement detailing the proposals. "They are organized, dangerous, deadly crime syndicates that prey on our youth and target our communities."
Kilgore also proposes to increase rehabilitation for young offenders, allow civil lawsuits against gangs, stiffen sentences for gang-related offenses and establish new laws against obtaining false identification papers.
Kilgore's Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, called the announcement an effort to distract people from a poor record on fighting gangs. Kilgore was the state's secretary of public safety in the mid-1990s and served as attorney general from 2002 until February, when he resigned to devote more time to the campaign.
In recent years, Northern Virginia law enforcement officers and community leaders have been struggling to contain gang violence, which they see as a growing problem.
Delacey Skinner, a spokeswoman for Kaine, declined to say whether he favors expansion of the death penalty to accomplices.
"What I see is an attempt to reintroduce the whole death penalty discussion and not really deal with the problem of gangs," Skinner said Monday.
State law allows the death penalty in murder-for-hire cases, and sniper John Allen Muhammad was successfully prosecuted for capital murder in part under an exemption that allows terrorism convictions even in cases where it is not clear who pulled the trigger.
But Virginia courts, and courts across the nation, have rejected other attempts to impose the death penalty on accomplices. In the Muhammad case, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the conviction could stand -- even though it was not clear whether Muhammad or partner Lee Boyd Malvo pulled the trigger -- because the murders could not have happened without Muhammad's involvement.
Kilgore said that as governor, he would urge the legislature to broaden the death penalty to apply to the killing of a witness in a trial and to crimes committed in a gang-related offense. An aide said Kilgore wants to eliminate a rule in all capital murder cases that the death penalty be applied only to the triggerman.
"It would apply to everybody. But the focus for us is to get after the gang leaders," said Kilgore's policy director, Carrie Cantrell. "We had the legislation for the anti-terrorism statute. That statute was upheld by the courts. This would be a similar process."
Steven D. Benjamin, the immediate past president of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the Kilgore proposal would vastly expand the cases in which prosecutors could seek the death penalty. He said that could fuel the debate over whether the death penalty is imposed fairly in the state.
"There are already questions about the fairness and evenhandedness" of the death penalty's application, Benjamin said. If the Kilgore proposal passes, he said, "we are eliminating a check on our passion and our emotion."
Benjamin said Kilgore's proposal would probably be constitutional but would be subject to interpretation by courts. The triggerman rule, for example, is a precedent created by legal cases over the years in which judges have refused to allow prosecutors to expand the use of the death penalty.
State Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun), who serves on the Courts of Justice Committee, said he believes it would be constitutional to impose the death penalty in cases of gang-ordered killings. The legislature has referred a similar bill to the state's Crime Commission for study.
"I expect it will be back before the General Assembly in 2006 and there will be a whole lot of support for it," Mims said.