- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 30, 2006

RICHMOND — The young woman was still in her bathrobe and had just stopped to check the mail when she was snatched off the street.

The woman, Angela Felton, was then forced into an abandoned house, where she beaten, stabbed and sexually assaulted, her body left inside a closet to bleed to death.

But Dexter Lee Vinson, the man convicted of murdering the 25-year-old mother, was somebody she once lived with and loved, not a stranger roaming the streets for victims.

Vinson was executed Thursday night for the 1997 murder, an unusual capital punishment for the slaying of a domestic partner. Death penalty specialists say the law and societal prejudices often spare domestic killers such punishment.

“Though domestic homicide and domestic violence is much more prevalent than stranger violence, people are more afraid of stranger violence because it’s something that they cannot control,” said Jacqueline Helfgott, criminology professor at Seattle University.

Specialists say such fear may make juries more apt to impose the death penalty on strangers who kill.

Of the 95 persons executed in Virginia since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty after a voluntary moratorium that began in 1967, seven were sentenced to death for killing someone with whom they had had a romantic relationship, according to an Associated Press analysis.

The majority of those executed never knew their victims before killing them, even though killings by strangers make up less than 14 percent of all homicides nationwide, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Elizabeth Rapaport, law professor at University of New Mexico, found that about 10 percent of those on death row committed domestic homicides.

Changes in death penalty law in the 1970s made it more difficult for juries to impose capital punishment on domestic killers, said Michael Meltsner, a professor and former dean at Northeastern University’s School of Law.

Before then, a capital-murder conviction required only premeditation and intent to kill, giving juries a great deal of discretion in imposing a death sentence.

But in 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court decided capital punishment had been arbitrarily administered, and states with a death penalty were forced to define aggravating factors that made a killer eligible for execution, Mr. Meltsner said.

Many of those aggravating factors focus on crimes against law-enforcement officials or killings that occur during the commission of other serious felonies such as rape or robbery — factors he said typically are absent in domestic killings.

Even when a domestic killing qualifies as a capital crime, prosecutors have a tough time persuading juries to impose the death penalty, said Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert, who successfully sought a death sentence against sniper John Allen Muhammad.

“People recognize that humans who have relationships with one another oftentimes act in an inappropriate manner,” Mr. Ebert said. “And jurors can understand that. They can relate to it, as opposed to the guy who jumps out from behind the bush and commits a horrible crime.”

There also is a societal tendency to blame victims of domestic killings for contributing to their own fate, Miss Rapaport said.

And in the case of a spouse who kills a cheating partner, the killer is often viewed with sympathy and as being “provoked” by the victim, she said.

“If a woman lives with a man and provokes him or lives with a man who has a tendency towards violence … the person on the jury or reading a newspaper says, ‘Well, I wouldn’t have done that,’ ” Miss Rapaport said.

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