Tuesday, December 21, 2004
Kilgore plan 'enhances' capital cases
The attorney general wants to bolster death penalty laws.
Kilgore also wants lawmakers to eliminate the so-called "trigger man" requirement in capital cases and allow the state to appeal the dismissal of capital murder charges on speedy trial grounds. The provisions are part of the "Death Penalty Enhancement Act" Kilgore will push during the legislative session that begins Jan. 12. Kilgore on Monday also unveiled other elements of his 2005 legislative package, including new measures to curb gang activity, prosecute e-mail spam and promote economic development. He said the package is designed to tackle "some of Virginia's toughest issues with common-sense policy."
Kilgore is the likely Republican nominee for governor next year and the death penalty is an issue on which he already has sought to distinguish himself from his likely Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine. Kaine, a Catholic, has said he has a "faith-based objection" to the death penalty but would uphold the state's law if elected.
The changes proposed by Kilgore could make death sentences easier to attain. Among other things, Kilgore wants to eliminate the automatic default to a life sentence when a jury is hung during the sentencing phase of a trial. He called for legislation enabling judges to dismiss juries that fail to reach unanimous verdicts on punishments in capital cases. At least seven states have similar provisions, according to the attorney general's office.
"In Virginia, if just one juror holds out then it's automatically life [in prison] and no chance for the prosecution to get the death penalty," Kilgore said in an interview. "So we want to say that just as this [guilty] verdict had to be unanimous, this second one has to be unanimous too, so you would empanel a new jury to come forth for the sentencing phase."
Kilgore's proposal "could be an enormous undertaking," said Richard Dieter, the executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. Though the proposal raises no glaring questions about fairness, the potential costs and logistical issues associated with assembling a new jury for sentencing could make the process unwieldy, Dieter said.
"The bigger questions are policy questions," Dieter said.
Kilgore acknowledged his proposal "would prolong the trial a little bit further."
"But I think it's important to let a community speak and let a community speak with unanimity," he said.
Kilgore's death penalty reforms also would eliminate the so-called "trigger man" requirement that prevents prosecutors from seeking death sentences for defendants other than one who actually committed a slaying. The proposed change stems from issues raised in the Virginia sniper cases against John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo.
Kilgore has not announced legislative sponsors for the death penalty measures.
The attorney general on Monday also called for greater curbs on gang activity, including the creation of "gang-free school zones" similar to drug-free school zones. He said he will push for legislation to ease regulatory burdens on small businesses. And he will seek a new felony statute to prosecute "phishing" - a term applied to e-mails that bait unsuspecting computer-users to supply financial or private information.
On the Net: