No moratorium on death penalty

RICHMOND — The House Courts of Justice rejected a proposal Monday for a two-year moratorium on the death penalty, ending possibility of a suspension of executions this year.

The legislation, sponsored by Fairfax Delegate Vincent F. Callahan Jr., R-34th, was opposed 16-4.

Prince William Delegate Michele B. McQuigg, R-51st, a committee member, was not present when the vote was taken.

Death-penalty opponents, wearing stickers with slogans such as, “Yes Virginia, there is an alternative to the death penalty,” attended Monday afternoon’s committee hearing hoping to influence lawmakers.

The committee also opposed legislation sponsored by Hanover Delegate Frank D. Hargrove Sr., R-55th, to abolish the death penalty in Virginia. The U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

“We’re coming perilously close to making some awful mistakes in recent times,” Hargrove told committee members.

Moratorium supporters said that a December report by the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission showed problems with the way capital punishment is carried out in Virginia.

The report showed a disparity in areas where prosecutors seek the death penalty. Prosecutors in cities are less likely than rural prosecutors to seek death in capital cases.

Bruce Williamson, president-elect of the Virginia College of Defense Attorneys, pointed to that finding as need for a two-year moratorium.

“We ought to look at what we’ve done over the past 25 years and see if it is good enough … to justify executing people,” he said.

Virginia Beach Delegate Robert F. McDonnell, R-84th, who opposed the moratorium, asked Williamson exactly what in the review commission’s report showed a need for further study by the General Assembly.

Less than one half of 1 percent of those found guilty in capital murder cases receive the death penalty in Virginia, he said.

Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr., speaking on behalf of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys, urged lawmakers to support the death penalty and said there was no need for a moratorium.

The review commission’s report, rather than show results that question the fairness of the death penalty, shows Virginia prosecutors are selective about which criminals should qualify, Horan said.

“There are some crimes that are so bad, some criminals so bad, that a jury of 12 under the law ought to be able to consider death as a possible penalty,” Horan said.

A moratorium would deny the wishes of jurors in cases such as the 1997 capital murder conviction of Mir Aimal Kasi, who shot and killed two and injured three others in January 1993 at CIA facilities in Fairfax County.

Horan prosecuted the case and asked jurors for the death penalty. The case is now on appeal before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“That case is one of the ones in the pipeline, one of the ones that would be affected by a moratorium,” Horan said. “He deserves no moratorium. He deserves the penalty that the jury imposed.”

The office of Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore opposed the bills to abolish the death penalty or create a moratorium. There are no executions currently scheduled in Virginia, but two death-row inmates are not actively pursuing appeals, said a representative of Kilgore’s office.

The Courts of Justice Committee is still considering legislation to prohibit executing a mentally retarded person. That bill was sent to subcommittee to try to craft a definition of mentally retarded satisfactory to proponents and opponents.

–The Associated Press

contributed to this report.

Staff writer Patrick Wilson can be reached at (703) 368-7449.

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