A Republican-backed bill to expand the death penalty in Virginia died in a Senate committee Wednesday when a GOP senator abstained, citing a potential conflict of interests.
The bill died on a 7-7 party-line vote in the Courts of Justice Committee, with Sen. Bill Stanley of Franklin County not voting. Stanley said he could not vote because he accepts court appointments to represent defendants in capital murder cases.
Sen. Mark Obenshain’s bill would have redefined the so-called triggerman rule, which in most cases restricts the death penalty to the person who does the actual killing. The legislation would have allowed the death penalty for accomplices who share the intent to kill. “This bill deals with the worst of the worst,” Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, told the committee.
He said that if notorious murder mastermind Charles Manson committed his crimes in Virginia today, instead of in California in 1969, prosecutors wouldn’t be able to seek the death penalty “and that is fundamentally wrong.”
Chesterfield County Commonwealth’s Attorney Billy Davenport spoke in support of the bill.
“This makes folks who are equally culpable equally liable,” Davenport said.
Death penalty opponents argued that Virginia should not expand capital punishment because the state already ranks 2nd only to Texas in the number of executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. They also said there is too much danger of executing an innocent person because there is no DNA or fingerprinting evidence that would prove a conspirator’s intent.
Debbie Simpson of Spotsylvania County urged the panel to reject the bill on moral and spiritual grounds.
“We are participating in the very act we say is wrong to do,” she said. “We have been sucked into the vortex of the cycle of violence, and we don’t even realize it.”
Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, said that when she was first elected 2 decades ago, she supported death penalty bills because she thought capital punishment served as a deterrent and helped bring closure to victims’ families. She changed her mind about 10 years ago when her father-in-law was slain in his home by a burglar.
“My sons vehemently opposed the death penalty,” Howell said. “My husband wanted the man who killed his father tortured. This does not hold families together.”
The heavily Republican House of Delegates is likely to pass its own version of the “triggerman” bill, but it still would have to go through the Senate committee to have a chance of passing.
Similar bills cleared both the House and the Senate in 2008 and 2009, but were vetoed by then-Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat. The Senate courts committee rejected the bills in 2010 and 2011, when Democrats held the majority. (source: Associated Press)