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Senate committee rejects death penalty expansion

Anita Kumar

The Senate Courts of Justice committee this morning voted against expanding the use of the death penalty to accomplices of those involved with first degree murder. Those who pull the trigger are already subject to the death penalty in Virginia, but not those indirectly involved with murder. Last year, a veto by former Gov. Tim Kaine (D) was all that kept the same measure from becoming law, after it passed the Democratic-led senate.

It was widely thought that the senate would likely approve the bill again this year and it would be signed into law by Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), who has voiced his approval. But, it appears the so-called "triggerman" bill will die this year, after a slight change to the courts committee membership resulted in a 6 to 9 vote. The House of Delegates has passed the same bill already, but it is likely the Senate courts committee will reject that measure as well.

There was also a new voice speaking out against the bill: The former executioner of Virginia.

In the kind of dramatic moment usually reserved for movies, Jerry Givens took the microphone to talk about the mental trauma the process inflicts on those involved. Givens said he participated in 62 executions during the 25 years he worked for the Virginia Department of Correction.

"The people who pass these bills, they don't have to do it," he said afterwards. "The people who do the executions, they're the ones who suffer through it.

Tucker Martin, a spokesman for McDonnell, said he was "disappointed" at the vote for what he termed a "a common-sense public safety measure."

"As a former prosecutor he strongly believes that equal culpability demands equal punishment," Martin said in an email.

By Anita Kumar  |  February 15, 2010; 12:59 PM ET
Categories:  General Assembly 2010 , Robert F. McDonnell , Rosalind Helderman , State Senate  
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I practiced law as a criminal defense attorney for almost 25 years in Virginia. I represented six men charged with capital crimes and lost one to the death penalty. The death penalty and any expansion of it to other crimes and defendants is barbaric. I welcome this rejection. Although as a society we do have the right and power to execute those who slay, we should not join those who kill in their barbarity.
Carl Womack

Posted by: canyonjunkie | February 15, 2010 5:58 PM | Report abuse

I welcome this rejection also. God only knows how many innocent U.S. Citizens have been murdered by the states under Capital Punishment. Imagine the perspective of an innocent man/woman who is on death row after being taken away from their family - and theres nothing they can do to stop their own murder at the hands of the state they've trusted for so long - while the Federal Authority fails it's obligation to protect them from wrongful execution. It's sickening to hear state lawmakers argue that the state has authority over a Federal Citizens rights - simply because the Federal Citizen is a resident of the state. Hundreds of exhonerations...but no one wants to discuss the exonerations that come AFTER the State sanctioned killings.

Posted by: DuaneAnthonyWebb | February 16, 2010 2:09 AM | Report abuse

Shucks. There's always next year!

Posted by: RealityCheckerInEffect | February 16, 2010 2:51 AM | Report abuse

Innocent people don't get put to death.

Posted by: ronjaboy | February 16, 2010 6:31 AM | Report abuse

"Innocent people don't get put to death" is quite a statement to make, ronjaboy, just two days after the story, Ohio giving $1.1M to man wrongly convicted of rape,

Posted by: cmckeonjr | February 16, 2010 8:34 AM | Report abuse

Only a politician would have the nerve to try and argue with the former henchman of Virginia saying the death penalty is traumatic and the legislature is obvlious.

Posted by: slydell | February 16, 2010 10:00 AM | Report abuse

I am very glad. States without the "triggerman" law have used the law to execute, say, the getaway driver in a bank robbery where someone was shot - even if the getaway driver didn't know a shooting was going to happen. Now of course the getaway driver is guilty of bank robbery and deserves to go to jail for a long, long time - but I don't think he deserves the death penalty.

(By the way, this triggerman law is not absolute. I'm pretty sure it doesn't cover murder-for-hire cases where, say, a Mafia chief could get the needle even if his henchmen were always the ones to do the dirty deed. More famously, John Muhammad was executed even though he never personally pulled the trigger because his works were considered "acts of terrorism".)

Posted by: marclips | February 16, 2010 10:11 AM | Report abuse

Why does this story with a bye line of Anita Kumar features a picture of Rosalind Helderman?

Posted by: pKrishna43 | February 16, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

Thank goodness. I am sure this governor would have signed it. It is deeply embarrassing that Virginia is the second biggest death penalty state after Texas.

Posted by: los22 | February 16, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

Mr Carl Womack,well call me what you will. But America is way to soft on crime. I think very differantly now that crimes of men & woman who are serial killers There is just not enough deterant for killing a person in America. We should all go back to an eye for eye. You kill, then your are killed plain an simple.

Posted by: JWTX | February 16, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

JWTX what you are suggesting is the reality in many ISLAMIC nations. Is that what you are suggesting for America?

Posted by: concernedaboutdc | February 16, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

the victim is forgotten. the scum are forgiven. civilized countries are the haven for these evil people. any comments on our muslim friends re death penalty

Posted by: pofinpa | February 16, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

Hundreds of exhonerations...but no one wants to discuss the exonerations that come AFTER the State sanctioned killings.

Posted by: DuaneAnthonyWebb | February 16, 2010 2:09 AM


Name one, please.

Posted by: hisroc | February 16, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse

The scenario that this bill is intended to address is what happened out in Harrisonburg a few summers ago with a female victim who died at the hands of MS-13. At the order of the MS-13 gang leader, Brenda Paz was taken out into the woods and stabbed to death, then her body dumped in a creek. The gang leader who ordered the killing could not, under Virginia law, be considered eligible for the death penalty.

I don't forecast that there would be a waterfall of new death sentence cases associated with this law being amended. If two or more are acting in concert to commit a capital crime, then they should be theoretically eligible for the death sentence.

I couldn't see Virginia commonwealth's attorneys wanting to willingly go after getaway drivers any time there was a bank robbery ending in homicide, but this would give prosecutors some flexibility, just as the then recently enacted anti-terrorism law was the primary factor to bring John Muhammad to justice....

Posted by: vuac | February 17, 2010 12:09 AM | Report abuse

Carl Womack is absolutely right. I've never represented anyone who was charged with a capital offense, but had the honor of watching Carl defend some of his cases. He knows what he's talking about. It's not only the stress of the executioner, but the stress and strain on everyone in the court system when the death penalty comes around. For a defense attorney it's a nightmare, for jurors it's an awesome and perhaps traumatic experience (especially if it's determined years later that the accused was innocent), and for the jailer and executioner it's a schizoid experience of taking care of the needs of an individual on the one hand and participating in his cold-blooded and intentionally inflicted death on the other. No one IN the system escapes untouched.

Anyone who thinks innocent people can't be put on death row has never heard of the Kirk Bloodsworth case, a man who sat on Maryland's death row for something like 12 years before he was finally exonerated through the then-new DNA technology. Bloodsworth was lucky. There was tangible evidence which could be attacked in his case instead of something like the highly unreliable eyewitness testimony which has sent many a potentially innocent person to death row.

If Mr. Martin and Governor McDonnell are so very enthusiastic for the death penalty then let them be the ones who prepare the condemned and the death chamber. Let them be the ones to form a relationship with the condemned only to march him down a hallway, place him on a gurney, and in a mockery of life-saving medical technique hook him to an IV and deliberately kill him, perhaps with his family members near by. They think it's no big deal? Then let it be THEIR responsibility.

Posted by: Lawlady584 | February 17, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

JWTX, it's a ridiculous argument to say we need the death penalty for deterrence. There is zero evidence that a death penalty statute even creates deterrence. Criminals don't generally count on being caught and the vast majority of the ones I've represented were either incapable of or unwilling to think of consequence. It's just not a factor in their thought processes. And no amount of ephemeral deterrent effect is worth the value of one innocent human life. Innocent people HAVE been executed: that's a fact, and it's confirmed by the number of convictions which have been vacated as the result of the use of new technologies like DNA analysis. The fact is that police DO get it wrong sometimes, no matter how good their intentions, and witnesses lie or are mistaken, and defense attorneys miss arguments or evidence they should have used, and mistakes are made in analysis of forensic evidence, and prosecutors will sometimes play fast and loose with the facts because they're so convinced they have the right guy. No one has to set out to BE wrong, but it's a system run by human beings with all their foibles and faults.

One of the most pernicious effects of the death penalty statute is how many times the threat of its use has been made in order to force people otherwise willing to go to trial to accept a guilty plea instead. This is exactly what happened in the notorious Norfolk Four case involving four sailors convicted of the rape and murder of a Navy wife, whose murder has now been confessed by another individual who is now incarcerated. In short, they were innocent, but so frightened of being convicted and sentenced to death - per the threats made to them by a long-discredited detective - that they pleaded guilty to something they hadn't done.

The death penalty warps the criminal justice process.

Posted by: Lawlady584 | February 17, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

Carl Womack, yes you did "lose one to death penalty", as if describing a client who had been run over by a bus. I shall add that your client was Timothy Spencer, a.k.a. the Southside Strangler, who had a little hobby of breaking into homes at night, attacking women, sexually assaulting them and all the while having a ratchet like scarf or similar article around their neck which Spencer turned to eventually crush their throats and cause their deaths. And he wasn't wrongfully convicted because he was the first person to be identified, convicted and executed due to a DNA evidentiary match.

Lawlady: Bob McDonnell did happen to walk the talk, because as a state legislator then, he was an official witness to Spencer's April 27, 1994 electrocution. I don't know why former executioner Jerry Givens is getting so worked up about his past job (before he became a convicted felon). He put away the likes of Timmy Spencer, the Briley Brothers, Roger Coleman and Joseph O'Dell to name a few.

Not everyone agrees with the worship of convicted murderers....

Posted by: vuac | February 17, 2010 5:39 PM | Report abuse

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