Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Kaine prefers not to expand death penalty

Kaine prefers not to expand death penalty

The governor has vetoed several bills that would have broadened the use of capital punishment.

By Michael Sluss
(804) 697-1585

RICHMOND -- The 30-second television ad produced an enduring image of Democrat Tim Kaine's 2005 campaign for governor.

In the closing weeks of a hard-fought race against Republican Jerry Kilgore, Kaine looked into the camera and tried to explain that his personal opposition to the death penalty would not stop court-ordered executions in Virginia.

"My faith teaches me life is sacred," Kaine said in the ad. "I personally oppose the death penalty. But I take my oath of office seriously and I'll enforce the death penalty."

Kaine won the election and, since taking office, has allowed the executions of four death-row inmates to proceed. The governor has delayed one death sentence, stopping the scheduled execution of a Danville man whose mental capacity has been questioned.

But Kaine has not silenced his critics. Last week, he reignited a debate over his stance on the death penalty by vetoing five bills designed to expand the number of crimes eligible for capital punishment. The governor's explanation for the vetoes was blunt.

"Virginia is already second in the nation in the number of executions we carry out," Kaine said. "While the nature of the offenses targeted by this legislation are very serious, I do not believe that further expansion of the death penalty is necessary to protect human life or provide for public safety needs."

Two of the bills Kaine vetoed would eliminate the so-called "triggerman rule" and make certain accessories to capital murder eligible for the death penalty. Other measures would make the premeditated murders of judges and witnesses capital crimes.

Republican leaders and sponsors of the bills were quick to criticize Kaine's decision and to call for an override of the governor's vetoes.

"Unfortunately, Governor Kaine missed an excellent opportunity to address gang violence and make Virginians safer," said Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling.

Attorney General Bob McDonnell said he respected Kaine's decision to use veto authority, but added that "the interests of justice and public safety demand that these bills be passed into law."

A two-thirds majority vote in each house is needed to override a governor's veto. Each of the death penalty bills received at least 81 votes in the 100-member House and at least 28 votes in the 40-member Senate.

Kaine would be more likely to have his vetoes sustained in the Senate, where 27 votes are needed to override and Democrats occupy 17 seats.

Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, who voted for the bills, said Kaine "is entitled to some presumption in sustaining his veto."

"I'm going to look at this very hard," Edwards said. "I think the governor may have a good point. How far do we need to go with some of these bills?"

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, also voted for the bills but said he would give Kaine's veto serious consideration.

"There is substantial support" for the legislation, Deeds said.

Kaine faces a tougher challenge in the House, where the bills passed with broad, bipartisan support. Democrats occupy 40 seats, but more than half of the members in Kaine's party supported the bills.

"The governor is a man of convictions and he put those convictions ahead of political expediency," said House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong, D-Henry County, who supported the bills. "I also have some strong convictions and I think there are some cases where the death penalty is appropriate. And I think we'll have to agree to disagree on this issue."

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, a sponsor of legislation to eliminate the triggerman rule, said he hopes Kaine does not pressure lawmakers to sustain his vetoes.

"Everyone has thought long and hard about this issue," Obenshain said. "They voted for it because they thought it was the right thing to do."

Lawmakers have worked on the triggerman legislation for more than two years and the Virginia Crime Commission has thoroughly reviewed it, supporters noted last week.

The push to eliminate the triggerman rule gained steam during the trial of John Allen Muhammad, one of two defendants convicted in a series of 2002 sniper shootings in Virginia and Maryland. Though Muhammad was sentenced to death under a terrorism-related statute, proponents of the legislation argue that the triggerman rule could have jeopardized Muhammad's conviction.

McDonnell last week pointed out that a co-defendant who was intimately involved in a 2006 triple homicide in Richmond escaped the death penalty because his specific role in the killing was unclear.

"Justice requires equal punishment for equal culpability," McDonnell said.

State prosecutors also want the triggerman rule eliminated. The Virginia Commonwealth's Attorneys Association joined the debate on Friday, issuing a news release calling on lawmakers to override the governor's vetoes of all five death-penalty bills.

"The existing law has a huge loophole, one that denies judges and juries the option to impose capital punishment on individuals clearly responsible for capital crimes," said Roanoke Commonwealth's Attorney Donald Caldwell in the association's release.

Only Texas has executed more prisoners than Virginia since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. But Kaine's vetoes are in step with a national trend toward contraction rather than expansion of death penalty laws, said University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias.

"Look more nationally and see what's going on, and if you do that, what Governor Kaine is doing is consistent with what we see in many other states," Tobias said.

Kaine, the state's first Roman Catholic governor, has said that his objections to the death penalty are rooted in his faith. He was asked Tuesday whether his vetoes were based on his moral objections or on common sense.

"Your own moral views inform your common sense of the world so I don't know how to factor it all in," Kaine said during a call-in show on WTOP radio in Washington. "I just know that there are an awful lot of public safety strategies you can put in place to reduce crime that aren't about the death penalty."

The Virginia Catholic Conference praised Kaine's vetoes. The organization's executive director, Jeff Caruso, said he hopes the governor's action "will encourage legislators to begin looking for ways to curb use of the death penalty rather than expand it."

Kaine has allowed four executions to proceed on his watch, but sparked heated debate over the one execution he has delayed. Kaine has twice delayed the execution of Percy Walton, who pleaded guilty to three 1996 murders in Danville.

The governor first stopped the execution to order an evaluation of Walton's mental condition and competence. He delayed it a second time in December after concluding that Walton "is severely mentally impaired and meets the Supreme Court's definition of mental incompetence."

Kaine did not commute Walton's sentence, saying "it is within the realm of possibility" that Walton's condition could improve.

Some critics argue that Kaine put his own judgment above that of the courts that had ruled on questions of Walton's mental condition.

Del. Robert Hurt, R-Chatham, called Kaine's decision to delay the execution "a travesty of justice."

"He wants to substitute his judgment, which is totally unchecked. ... as opposed to following what I think was the clear law set down by the courts."

Hurt sponsored legislation that would make the premeditated murder of a judge a capital crime and expressed disappointment with Kaine's veto.

Even Kaine's critics acknowledge that the governor did not say he would support an expansion of the death penalty when he was running for office two years ago. Kaine fought off attacks on the issue by insisting he would follow the existing law and not systematically stop executions.

House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, said of Kaine's vetoes: "Why would anybody be surprised?"

"He never said, 'I support the death penalty and I'll make sure to support law to make the death penalty as strong as possible,' " Griffith said.

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