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Expansion of death bill a year away

- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2009

An effort to expand the death penalty in Virginia may meet its demise again this year at the governor's desk, but the heated race to replace Tim Kaine bodes better for the bill in 2010.

"It's my hope that next year, irrespective of who wins the gubernatorial election, that this bill will finally be signed into law," said Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, Harrisonburg Republican. "That doesn't mean we're not going to fight this year."

Mr. Obenshain's bill to widen Virginia's "triggerman rule" and permit the death penalty for accomplices to murder cleared the Senate Courts of Justice Committee on Wednesday. State law currently allows only the actual perpetrator of capital murder to be eligible for the death penalty, with some exceptions.

Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, has vetoed similar legislation two years in a row. And while the Republican-controlled House of Delegates last year voted to override the veto, the Democrat-dominated Senate fell three votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to do the same.

Kaine spokesman Gordon Hickey said the governor's stance has not changed since last year.

"While the nature of the offense targeted by this legislation is very serious, I do not believe that further expansion of the death penalty is necessary to protect human life," Mr. Kaine, a Catholic personally opposed to the death penalty, said last year in explaining his veto.

However, three of the candidates vying for governor this year - Democrats Brian J. Moran and state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds of Bath County, along with Attorney General Bob McDonnell, a Republican - all have backed the expansion effort.

Mr. Moran, a former state delegate, voted in favor of the death penalty expansion last year, and Mr. McDonnell called on Mr. Kaine to sign the bill.

Mr. Deeds, the only current member of the General Assembly in the race, is on the Senate courts committee and voted in favor of the bill Wednesday, as well as last year.

"He believes that the death penalty should be reserved for the most heinous of crimes committed in Virginia, but sees the triggerman rule as a way for people who have committed the ultimate crime to avoid the ultimate punishment," Deeds spokesman Peter Jackson said.

Moran spokesman Jesse Ferguson said his candidate previously worked to fine-tune the legislative language for widening the triggerman rule and "certainly supports the [bill] that he voted for last year." A McDonnell spokesman also said the attorney general supports eliminating the triggerman rule.

The fourth candidate in the governor's race - Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat and former head of the national party - wouldn't prioritize eliminating the triggerman rule but wouldn't oppose such a bill either, his spokeswoman said.

"If it landed on his desk, he's not going to oppose it," spokesman Delacey Skinner said.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, Virginia has carried out 102 executions and ranks second only to Texas with its total, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.