RICHMOND, Va. - For the fifth year in a row, the Virginia General Assembly has rejected legislation to expand the state's death penalty law.
The Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted 8-6, with one abstention, on Wednesday to kill a proposal to allow the death penalty for accomplices who share a murderer's intent to kill. The bill would have revised Virginia's "triggerman rule," which in most cases allows capital punishment only for the person who does the actual killing.
Two weeks ago, the Senate's own version of the Republican-backed bill died in the courts committee on a 7-7 party-line vote, with one GOP senator abstaining because he accepts court appointments to represent capital murder defendants. Sen. Bill Stanley of Franklin County abstained again Wednesday. Republican Sen. Bryce Reeves of Fredericksburg switched sides and voted against the bill.
Reeves said after the committee meeting that he changed his vote "based on my faith," but he declined to elaborate.
Similar bills cleared both the House and the Senate in 2008 and 2009, but were vetoed by then-Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, and supporters of the legislation could not muster the two-thirds majority needed in both chambers of the General Assembly to override the vetoes. The Senate courts committee rejected the bills in 2010 and 2011, when Democrats held the majority.
"I'm pleased that once again, an unnecessary and expensive and risky expansion of capital punishment has failed," said Stephen Northup, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Because the committee had conducted a lengthy hearing on the Senate version of the bill, it spent very little time on the measure sponsored by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah. The state's prosecutors supported the bill. Representatives of Catholic organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union and conservative Republican Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli briefly stated their opposition.
Supporters of the legislation have argued that a person who participates in a slaying but does not actually wield the murder weapon is equally responsible and should face the same punishment as the "triggerman."
Opponents say Virginia already ranks second to Texas in the number of executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, and expanding death penalty eligibility would increase the chances of executing an innocent person.
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