Friday, 23 February 2007

Reserve executions for worst of the worst

Reserve executions for the worst of the worst
The Virginian-Pilot
© February 23, 2007

Second place not being good enough, the General Assembly seeks to expand the categories of crimes eligible for the death penalty.

Only one state - Texas - has executed more people in the 30 years since the Supreme Court re-established capital punishment in 1976. A good way to burnish that gruesome credential is to expand exponentially the number of candidates eligible for the death penalty. The Assembly is on track to do just that by dropping the rule that only actual killers can be killed.

Now, pending gubernatorial signature, accessories in murders for hire and murders involving terrorism or a continuing criminal enterprise may also be executed. In all other murders, anyone who shares the same "intent" as the actual killer, or anyone who ordered or directed a willful, premeditated killing, can join the list.

A bill by Sen. Nick Rerras, R-Norfolk, making anyone convicted of killing a judge or a witness eligible for death, also passed the legislature.

At a time when much of the nation appears deeply conflicted about the practice of capital punishment, eliminating the so-called "triggerman" rule, in particular, defiantly drives Virginia in the opposite direction.

The proposed change invites prosecutors to bring capital charges against scores of individuals who heretofore would be punished by life in prison.

Resisting that development does not condone coddling those who commit evil acts. For the convicted, life in prison can be a fate worse than death. But for society, life sentences are not irreversible judgments. That's a plus given the proven fallibility of the criminal justice system. Nor are people stained by the moral incongruity of duplicating, albeit in sanitized form, the very acts we claim to abhor.

For many years, Virginia has recognized that even blood thirst does not require executing everyone intimately connected to a murder. By narrowing the field to those who literally "pull the trigger," we maintain the decorum of claiming to kill only the worst of the worst.

Are there instances in which someone other than a triggerman bears greater culpability for a murder? Yes, but rarely. Broadening the dragnet to capture those few, we instead widen the risk of injustice, while burdening citizens with the actual and psychic costs of spiraling executions.

As a death penalty opponent, Gov. Tim Kaine might veto such legislation. In fact, in an election year, that may be what some of those pushing the expansion have in mind. Based on House and Senate tallies to date, however, it's far from certain a veto could be sustained.

After several grisly years, executions have tapered off in Virginia lately. This legislation could spur a resurgence. That's not a distinction of which anyone should be proud.

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