Triggerman Bill Shot Down By Senate Democrats

A little while ago, I received the follow email from Senator Mark Obenshain:

Earlier today, Democrats on the Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted along party lines to defeat SB 7, my legislation to close the triggerman loophole. The bill would have reinstated accomplice liability for principals in the second degree and accomplices before the fact. Closing this loophole has been a priority of the law enforcement community for years, and passed both chambers with bipartisan support three consecutive years before meeting with then-Governor Tim Kaine’s veto pen.

Senator Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), the Democratic nominee for governor in 2009, voted against the bill after consistently and vocally supporting it in previous years. I think it’s fair to ask whether Senator Deeds was sincere in his prior votes for closing the triggerman loophole or in today’s vote against it. Back when he was running for Governor, Deeds touted his support for this bill as one of his credentials, but with the election behind him, he’s singing a different tune.

Deeds, who voted for the legislation and in favor of overriding then-Gov. Kaine’s vetoes each previous time the bill was introduced, was joined by Senators Marsh, Saslaw, Howell, Lucas, Edwards, Puller, Deeds, McEachin, and Petersen in rejecting the bill.

Democrats stacked the Courts committee this year, and it shows. In a narrowly divided 22-18 Senate, Democrats enjoy a 9-6 majority on the powerful Senate Courts of Justice Committee, and today they used their margin to kill a good bill – one that enjoyed bipartisan support from seven Senate Democrats and nineteen House Democrats last year.

My bill enjoyed broad support among legislators, prosecutors, and law enforcement, all of whom see this legislation as necessary for the effective prosecution of those who willfully, deliberately, and intentionally participate in the commission of a capital murder, but happen not to be the individual pulling the trigger. It has been endorsed by the Virginia Crime Commission, the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys, the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, and other law enforcement organizations, and enjoyed the support of all four major-party candidates for governor – including all three Democratic contenders – last year.

Closing the triggerman loophole will increase public safety by restoring an important tool to prosecutors. The existing triggerman loophole allows criminal defendants who willfully and deliberately participated in a premeditated murder that is otherwise covered as a capital offense to escape prosecution for capital murder if they did not actually pull the trigger. It is a distinction unheard of in common law and unknown to Virginia law until 1979. The loophole was created at a time when the courts had called the constitutionality of the death penalty into question, and we are long overdue to close it.

Need an example? Under current Virginia law, even someone like Charles Manson could not be prosecuted for capital murder, despite the fact that he orchestrated the Tate-LaBianca murders in the 1960s.

The majority of states with the death penalty make co-conspirators in capital murder cases eligible for the death penalty. Supporters of this change cite a number of especially aggravated murders where the existing triggerman rule has thwart prosecutors. In a particularly heinous crime in 1999, it was only possible to obtain a death sentence against one of three men who abducted, raped, and brutally murdered a woman.

A similar bill (HB 502) patroned by my friend Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Woodstock) passed the House with broad bipartisan support, 74-24. It remains to be seen how the Senate Courts of Justice Committee will receive Todd’s bill, but I hope that Senator Deeds and his colleagues will revisit their newfound objections.

Because it’s not just Deeds, though he’s the most recent to flip. Although they have voted against the bill more recently, Senators John Edwards (D-Roanoke) and Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Springfield) both supported an identical bill in 2007, when the Senate passed my bill 28-11. (Kaine vetoed it.)

When it comes to law enforcement, Virginians are looking for consistent leadership, not votes of convenience, and it’s regrettable that this formerly bipartisan measure died at the hands of an increasingly partisan Democratic Senate majority.

Mark Obenshain
Virginia State Senator

It’s a shame that the Senator’s bill didn’t survive the committee and is yet another telling example of how some politicians will vote for a bill when he or she knows it will be vetoed, but will vote against it when it is likely to pass.  Unfortunately, for far too many legislators, politics trumps principles.  If conservative Republicans reclaim the Senate in the 2011 elections, perhaps we will finally be able to offer so many murderers the justice they deserve.

Thank you Senator Obenshain.

2 Replies to “Triggerman Bill Shot Down By Senate Democrats”

  1. I agree that this is an interesting loophole, but the ramifications of removing the loophole could set a dangerous precedent. Deeds’s flip-flop is rather interesting though, as he passionately defended removing the triggerman clause.

    In the Richmond Times Dispatch, I saw this legal opinion on the triggerman loophole:

    “The only way to prove that an accomplice to a capital murder shared the same criminal intent as the actual killer would be through circumstantial evidence, which he called a “dangerous slope” for deciding death-penalty eligibility.”

  2. Venu, I have to agree with you. I’ve seen that slippery slop in other states. You end up with a long drawn out appeals process. It is very costly.

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