By Mannix PorterfieldREGISTER-HERALD REPORTER
CHARLESTON — John F. Morgan paid the price for doing wrong.So goes a Flatt & Scruggs ballad depicting the last public execution in West Virginia, a day of celebration by a moonshine-swilling crowd outside the Jackson County courthouse in Ripley, eager to watch Morgan swing in the wind for the hatchet murders of a woman and two children.
That wasn’t the last time, however, the state imposed capital punishment. And if Delegate John Overington has his way, nor will the execution of Elmer Bruner in Gov. Cecil Underwood’s first term in the 1950s be the final chapter.Overington has tried in all but two of his 24 years as a legislator to revive the death penalty, which West Virginia outlawed in 1965.Never has Overington reached first base in 22 separate death penalty bills, and there’s no assurance new House Judiciary Chairman Carrie Webster, D-Kanawha, is any more sympathetic to his cause than previous chairs who let the legislation die a slow death in committee.
Overington feels he will have some added clout in the 2008 session, however, given the recent decision by a federal jury of eight women and four men to sentence a man and woman to death in the slaying of a drug informant.Morgan’s death back in 1897 inspired not only a bluegrass tune, but led West Virginia authorities to move executions indoors, far from the madding crowd, since they were turning into gleeful public spectacles.As both legislator and governor, Underwood early in his career opposed capital punishment, a position that altered with time and the commission of what he termed “hideous” offenses.
Overington uses similar terminology, calling some crimes so “heinous” that the perpetrators deserve to be put to death. His capital punishment proposal calls for limited usage, and only when all doubts of guilt are removed.“We’d be looking at mitigating circumstances, aggravating circumstances,” he said.By that, he means the slaying of a police officer, a firefighter, a prison officer or a child by a sex offender, multiple deaths (such as the Morgan hatchet case) and murders committed by those with criminal records.“Capital punishment would only apply when there is absolutely no doubt about the guilt of the individual,” the veteran lawmaker said.
Overington’s optimism for success next year in restoring capital punishment rose sharply last week when a federal jury in Charleston imposed the death penalty on Valerie Friend and George Lecco in the murder of drug informant Carla Collins in Mingo County.“I think this latest case in southern West Virginia adds new momentum, where for drug dealers, for murder, there are some circumstances and I think the majority of West Virginians would support it,” he said.Overington said he considers the Collins slaying an example of a “heinous crime.”“The poster boy is Ron Williams, in Mount Olive, who killed a Beckley policeman (Sgt. David Lilly in 1975) and was sentenced to life at Moundsville,” the lawmaker said.
Williams masterminded a mass escape in 1979, during which he shot and killed Philip Kesner, an off-duty state trooper who happened by the old prison at the time.Williams also was convicted of murdering an elderly Arizona man while on the loose, but avoided the death penalty by being returned to West Virginia to serve out two life sentences.While Overington might have trouble in committee, he is confident his bill would gain lopsided approval by the full House and Senate if it ever hits the floor of the chambers, based on both scientific and informal polls showing a vast majority of West Virginians are in his corner.One obstacle not likely to appear is the governor’s office.
In a Register-Herald interview published July 29, 1995, then-candidate Manchin, making his first stab at he governorship, gave unqualified support for restoring the death penalty.“I believe in capital punishment,” he said at the time.“If we allow society to prey on our children, and a lawless society where we don’t respect the law, then I don’t have a society I want to live in, in the 21st century.”Manchin was just as adamant that he wanted to see Williams face the music in Arizona.“I wouldn’t have had to think twice about what to do,” he said. “I fly, and I would have taken my plane and gotten him out there some way.”
Twelve years later, Manchin hasn’t flinched on his death penalty stance, provided each case meets two conditions.“In instances of heinous crimes and where forensic evidence made guilt clear beyond a shadow of doubt,” spokeswoman Lara Ramsburg said.“There has to be no question of guilt.”
Overington says restoration of the death penalty is needed not only for punishment but from the vantage of easing the grief of victims’ families.“It does bring a resolution to a family’s sad saga,” he says.“It helps bring closure.”