LEGISLATION: Virginia Rejects Death Penalty Expansion Bill

On February 22, Virginia’s legislature blocked a bill that would have allowed the death penalty for accomplices to murder who did not actually carry out the killing. The bill would have revised the state’s “triggerman rule,” which allows the death penalty only for the person directly responsible for the actual murder. Two weeks ago, the Senate version of the bill was rejected by the Courts of Justice Committee on a 7-7 vote. The House then passed its own version of the bill, forcing the Senate to reconsider the measure. The Courts Committee again rejected the expansion bill, this time by a vote of 8-6. The vote difference was attributed to Republican Senator Bryce Reeves, who said he changed his vote based on his religious beliefs. Similar bills were passed by the Virginia legislature in 2008 and 2009, but were vetoed by then-Governor Tim Kaine. In 2010 and 2011, the Senate Courts Committee rejected similar bills. Stephen Northup, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, called the bill “an unnecessary[,] expensive and risky expansion of capital punishment.” Among those opposing the bill were representatives of Catholic organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli. Some of these noted that the state already ranks second to Texas in the number of executions since the the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and that expanding death penalty eligibility would increase the chances of executing an innocent person.

(L. O’Dell, “Triggerman bill killed by Senate panel,” Associated Press, February 23, 2012). See Recent Legislative Activity and Crimes Punishable by the Death Penalty.