Wednesday, December 22, 2004
Editorial: Playing politics with life and death
From the RoundTable blog
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The "Death Penalty Enhancement Act"? How does a civilized society enhance the ultimate sanction? Burn 'em at the stake? Draw and quarter 'em? Well, no. But what Virginia's attorney general - and, not coincidentally, probable Republican candidate next year for governor - does have in mind smacks of a pandering to blood lust that speaks ill of his leadership potential.
For years after capital punishment was reinstated in the 1970s, Virginia consistently finished second only to Texas in the number of prisoners put to death annually. With a total of nearly 100 executions since 1976, Virginia remains a national "leader."
But the Old Dominion's pace is slowing. The blood lust does not circulate as fast as it once did. In 2003, not only Texas but also Oklahoma and North Carolina outpaced Virginia. When James Reid of Christiansburg was put to death in September, it was but the fifth execution in Virginia in 2004.
We must do better, the Kilgore view seems to be. We must have "enhancement."
If a capital murder charge is dismissed, give prosecutors another crack at it on appeal. If a conspirator didn't actually pull the trigger, make him or her subject to execution anyway. And if a jury deadlocks on whether to impose the death penalty, thereby defaulting the sentence to life in prison without parole, empower the judge to shop for a jury that isn't so wussy.
For that last proposal, Kilgore offers a puzzling rationale. It is important, he says, "to let a community speak with unanimity." But if the first jury was deadlocked, the community by definition is not unanimous.
And in any event, it is a mistake to assume that death-penalty juries, skewed as they are to minimize the presence of capital-punishment opponents, do a good job of reflecting community sentiment.
In fact, a significant minority of Virginians opposes the death penalty under all circumstances. A substantial minority, perhaps a slight majority, opposes it if life imprisonment without parole is an option - as is the case in Virginia, even if many are unaware of it.
If strong community consensus, let alone unanimity, were required to impose the death penalty in Virginia, it would be abolished.
But, then, Kilgore's proposals appear to have less to do with unanimity or strong consensus than with the 50 percent plus one it takes to get elected governor.