By David Mattera, Legislative Associate
Earlier today the Senate Courts of Justice Committee put the last nail in the coffin of a bill that could have dramatically expanded the death penalty in Virginia.  Death penalty opponents immediately let out a collective sigh of relief, for we had feared the worst this year given the change in the political winds after the November elections.
For the past three years, the General Assembly has voted to repeal the “triggerman rule,” which states that, with few exceptions, only the actual perpetrator of a capital crime may receive the death penalty.  With the “triggerman rule” eliminated, accomplices in capital cases could receive death sentences, thus potentially expanding significantly the number of executions in a state that is already among the nation’s leaders.  (In fact, only Texas has executed more people than Virginia since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.)
But each time the General Assembly passed the triggerman bill, then Governor Tim Kaine vetoed it.  And, while the House easily managed the two-thirds vote needed to overturn the veto, the Senate couldn’t.  So the bills died.
With Governor Bob McDonnell at the helm, the “triggerman” bill looked like a sure thing, especially since he had publicly stated he would sign into law any bill expanding the death penalty.
But then something surprising happened.  The Senate Courts of Justice Committee, which had passed the triggerman bill for three years straight, refused to report SB 7, the Senate’s version of the bill.
The House triggerman bill, HB 502, easily passed on a 74-24 vote, but its next stop was the very Senate committee that had killed the same bill on the Senate side.  This morning the Senate Courts Committee killed HB 502 on a 9-Y, 6-N vote, thereby keeping the bill off  Gov. McDonnell’s desk, at least for this year.
Unfortunately, there is almost never unqualified good news in the Virginia General Assembly.  On the same day that the Senate Courts Committee killed the triggerman bill, it voted in favor of House bills allowing capital punishment to be imposed on those who murder auxiliary police officers, auxiliary deputy sheriffs, fire marshals, and assistant fire marshals (HB 934, HB 166).
So our work is not done.  Please contact your Senator today to oppose HB 166 and HB 934!