May 27, 2007
Death penalty debate
Federal case won't revive question on capital punishment
By Lawrence Messina, Times West Virginian
CHARLESTON - Even if a federal jury delivers the first death sentences in
West Virginia in more than 40 years, the debate over reviving capital
punishment for state crimes is not expected to change much.
Such has been the case in five other states without a death penalty, after
federal prosecutors sent inmates to death row in each, noted Richard Dieter,
director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
"It does allow a jury within the state to do what otherwise can't be done -
voting on life and death," said Dieter, whose group opposes capital
punishment. "It raises the issue, but I don't know whether it makes the
death penalty more palatable or less."
Virginia hopes the pending case improves his chances.
"I've been puzzled over the years as to why we haven't gotten capital
punishment passed," said Delegate John Overington, R-Berkeley. "It seems
like it's a pretty heinous crime. I think it's cases like that that help
make the case."
A U.S. District jury in Charleston deliberated for 16 hours over three days
last week on whether to sentence George "Porgy" Lecco and Valerie Suzette
Friend to death or to life in prison without parole. Jurors resume
Earlier this month, the jury convicted Friend, 44, of murdering Carla Gail
Collins in April 2005 on orders from Lecco. Collins, a 33-year-old single
mother, had been helping a federal task force investigating a cocaine ring
that Lecco, 57, ran out of a drive-through pizza parlor.
Collins' status as an informant and Friend's use of a firearm each made her
killing a death penalty case under federal law. A grand jury indicted the
pair on the capital crime charges in October 2005. U.S. Attorney General
Alberto Gonzales approved its use against them in May 2006.
The case against Lecco and Friend is among about 420 nationwide where
federal prosecutors have pursued the death penalty since 1988, when it was
restored for federal crimes, according to figures cited by Dieter from the
Federal Death Penalty Resource Council.
Only 162 of those reached trial, and of those slightly more than a third -
57 cases - ended with death sentences. Thirty-two of those sentences had
been won during President Bush's tenure, Dieter said.
Four federal defendants were sentenced to death last year, Dieter said, and
51 inmates are on federal death row nationwide.
But while federal prosecutors have sought the death penalty in three other
West Virginia cases since 1990, none of those got that far. But they have
landed it in Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Vermont and North Dakota - which
along with West Virginia and six other states have abolished capital
punishment for state offenses.
The Mountain State removed the death penalty from its books in 1965. Its
last death sentence was carried out in 1959, when 43-year-old Elmer Bruner
was electrocuted for a Cabell County murder.
First elected to the House in 1984, Overington has introduced death penalty
legislation without success for more than 20 years. Citing polling on the
question, he argues that West Virginians support capital punishment - and
perhaps by a 2-to-1 margin.
Overington's bill would threaten death for the murder of an informant. It
would also apply in murder-for-hire cases; Lecco offered Friend cocaine to
kill Collins, the jury found.
But Overington also said that his bill would also apply "only when the guilt
is not in doubt." Though found guilty, Friend's defense did not concede to
any role in the killing during the penalty phase.
Source : The Times West Virginian