- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2009

RICHMOND | The House has passed bills to expand capital punishment to include those who assist in a murder but don’t commit the actual killing and to those who kill an on-duty fire marshal or auxiliary police officer.

The chamber passed the bills on Tuesday. The Senate passed similar bills last month, but one didn’t get the two-thirds majority that would be needed to overturn a likely veto.

For the past two years, Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, has vetoed bills to expand Virginia’s “triggerman rule,” which reserves capital punishment for the person who actually does the killing. The bills would allow the death penalty for any accomplice who shares the triggerman’s intent to kill.

The House voted 73-25 Tuesday in favor of a bill by Delegate Todd Gilbert, Shenandoah Republican. The Democrat-controlled Senate passed a version sponsored by Sen. Mark Obenshain, Harrisonburg Republican, 24-16, three votes shy of being veto-proof.

Mr. Kaine, a Roman Catholic, has said he does not favor expanding the death penalty, but his staff would not promise a veto.

“The governor will look at each bill individually, as he always does,” said Gordon Hickey, a Kaine spokesman.

The House also voted 75-22 to allow capital punishment for those who kill fire marshals and auxiliary police while on duty.

The Senate passed similar bills by enough votes to override a veto.

Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Obenshain have said Virginia’s triggerman rule is unfair because it holds only one person responsible for a crime in which others are equally involved.

The other bills are needed, Republicans said, to protect different types of law enforcement officers who may be targeted by killers.

Democrats argued against expanding the death penalty at a time when many states are moving away from the practice. A report last year showed that new death sentences were at a three-decade low and that the number of people executed was the lowest in nearly 15 years.

Virginia executed four inmates last year and is scheduled next week to execute Edward Nathaniel Bell, who killed a police officer in 1999.

“We are getting away from the initial intent, to only execute for the most heinous crimes,” said Delegate Joseph Morrissey, Henrico Democrat.

Right now, prosecutors can seek the death penalty only if a crime meets one of 15 criteria. Those include killing someone during a rape or killing a witness to interfere with a case.

Mr. Morrissey reminded his colleagues that more than 100 death-row inmates have been exonerated because of DNA evidence. He warned that expanding capital punishment could make it more likely that an innocent person is put to death.

Delegate David Marsden, Fairfax Democrat, said he is not opposed to the death penalty, but added that the triggerman expansion particularly worries him because juries would be required to decide on someone’s intent, not their actions.

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