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Va. capital punishment is for more than just triggerman

In my post about Virginia death row inmate Justin Michael Wolfe being granted a new evidentiary hearing in federal court, a reader responded with a question about the case.

The reader, tdb001, wrote:

How can Wolfe be "on Virginia's death row" when Virginia law does *not* have a provision for imposing the death sentence on anyone involved in a capital crime except on the so-called "trigger man"?

Virginia’s longstanding capital punishment provisions allow Virginia juries to hand down death sentences for numerous types of murders involving specific factors.

Virginia Code Section 18.2-31 spells out the 15 circumstances in which murder is elevated to capital murder and thus eligible for the death penalty.

For example, Wolfe was convicted of carrying out a murder-for-hire scheme, and murder for hire is a capital offense in Virginia, meaning that those convicted of hiring someone to kill someone else -- and that person is actually killed -- are eligible for the death penalty.

Similarly, those who are convicted of killing someone during the course of a robbery, of killing someone during an abduction, or of killing a law enforcement officer are also all eligible for the death penalty in Virginia.

Killing more than one person during the same crime, or within a three-year-period, is also a capital crime in Virginia; Larry “Bill” Elliott was executed in November for killing two people at once. (Elliott chose the electric chair.)

The “triggerman” rule that tdb00 references is actually more of a limit on the death penalty than anything else. Traditionally it has been very difficult for Virginia prosecutors to obtain a capital conviction if they could not prove that the person on trial actually pulled the trigger or actually killed the victim in the case, making accomplices in a capital murder eligible only for life in prison. This came into play during the trial for Washington area sniper John Allen Muhammad, who prosecutors could not prove shot anyone.

In that case, prosecutors argued that Muhammad was such an essential part of the “sniper team” that was killing people at random that he, in effect, actually killed the people, even if there wasn’t proof that he pulled the trigger. A judge allowed prosecutors to make that argument, and prosecutors also used the state’s anti-terrorism laws as they regard to capital punishment to get a death sentence for Muhammad.

Muhammad was executed in November.

Virginia’s legislature has tried several times in recent years to eliminate the triggerman rule in capital cases and to allow accomplices to be executed, but the bills were vetoed by then-Gov. Tim Kaine. The same bill passed the Virginia House this month, and Virginia’s new governor, Bob McDonnell, is in favor of capital punishment and may sign such a bill into law.

Paul Warner Powell’s case is an interesting example of how the capital murder distinction works. Prosecutors in Prince William County -- where both Wolfe and Muhammad were prosecuted -- at first indicted Powell for capital murder alleging that he killed Stacie Reed and then raped her sister in January 1999.

He was convicted and sentenced to death, but higher courts ruled that Powell could not get the death penalty for killing one person and raping another because Virginia law specified that the rape or attempted rape had to be connected to the murder victim.

Believing he had won a reprieve from death row, Powell then wrote a letter to prosecutors admitting that he actually had tried to rape Stacie Reed before he killed her. Prosecutors indicted him again -- this time alleging the attempted rape and murder of the same victim -- and Powell was again convicted and sentenced to death.

That conviction has held up, and Powell is scheduled to be executed in Virginia on March 18.

-- Josh White

By Josh White  |  February 12, 2010; 8:27 AM ET
Categories:  Death Penalty , Homicide , Josh White , Pr. William , Reader Questions , Virginia  
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