Va. legislature considers expanding death penalty

By: Michael Bodine
Friday, February 17, 2012

RICHMOND – The Virginia House of Delegates has advanced a bill that would make a broader range of criminals eligible for the death penalty.

House Bill 389, proposed by Delegate Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, would redefine the “triggerman” rule in murder cases. The term “triggerman” refers strictly to the direct perpetrators of homicide, according to the current state law.

Delegate Robert Bell, R-Charlottesville, said the goal of the bill is to make accomplices to the “triggerman” just as eligible for the capital punishment.

“We believe that in some circumstances, someone other than the triggerman is every bit as culpable for the murder as the person who pulled the trigger, and therefore, it should be an option for juries,” Bell said.

He had introduced an identical measure, HB 954. It was incorporated into HB 389.

On Tuesday, the House voted 72-28 for the bill. Eight Democrats, 63 Republicans and one independent voted for the legislation; four Republicans and 24 Democrats voted against it.

The group Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty questions the need for legislation like HB 389. Steve Northup, executive director of VADP, said the state law is already broad enough to incorporate those who assist the “triggerman” in a murder.

“The word ‘triggerman’ is actually a misnomer,” Northup said. “For example, if there are two guys, and one guy holds the victim down while the other guy shoots the victim, they can both be prosecuted for capital murder …

“If you believe in capital punishment, then you believe it ought to be available for the worst of the crimes committed by the most dangerous people. It’s already broad enough to handle that.”

Since the resumption of capital punishment in 1976, Virginia has had more executions than any state except Texas.

Northup said his main concern is that the bill could increase the use of an irreversible punishment for a crime.

“Everybody knows that the criminal justice system makes mistakes,” Northup said. “We, from time-to-time, convict innocent people … If you convict an innocent person, sentence him to death and execute him, you can’t go back later and say, ‘Oh sorry we made a mistake.’ ”

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, also offered a proposal to redefine the “triggerman” rule – Senate Bill 58. However, it was killed last week in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.

The committee voted 7-7 along party lines, with Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, abstaining.

As HB 389 now moves to the Senate, Northup hopes it will suffer the same fate there as SB 58.

But Bell remains optimistic about the bill’s passage in the Senate.

“We are hopeful that with the changes in the Senate and governor’s mansion, we can get this passed this year,” he said.

Modifying the “triggerman” rule, he said, would allow courts to determine “whether individual defendants on a case-by-case basis deserve the ultimate punishment for their actions.”