Deaton: Candidate calls for moratorium on death penalty prosecutions
Calling the death penalty "barbaric," Steve Deaton, candidate for commonwealth's attorney in Charlottesville, wants a moratorium on prosecutions that could lead to death row.
"It's something I've been thinking about a long time," says Deaton. "I'm surprised no one brought it up– it's so out of character for Charlottesville."
Actually, City Council did pass a resolution calling for a death penalty moratorium in the state in 2000 that gained no traction in the General Assembly. And no one has been sentenced to death in Charlottesville since 1905, when former mayor Sam McCue was hanged for the murder of his wife Fannie.
Deaton also objects to the threat of the death penalty to convince suspects to plead guilty to life in prison. "It shouldn't be used as a bargaining chip," he says. "I think it's horrendous to use the threat of the death penalty."
He cites as an example the murderers of Jayne McGowan, the 26-year-old who was slain in her St. Clair Avenue home in 2007. Cousins William Douglas Gentry, Jr. and Michael Stuart Pritchett were charged with capital murder and pleaded guilty in an agreement under which the prosecution said it would not seek the death penalty.
Steve Northup, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, points to Virginia cases in which innocent people have been threatened with the death penalty and pled guilty to avoid it, such as the Norfolk Four, sailors who made false confessions to a rape and murder to which another man, whose DNA was found at the scene, later admitted committing.
In another notorious capital case, Justin Wolfe's conviction in Northern Virginia was overturned because a witness said he'd been threatened with the death penalty if he didn't name Wolfe.
Northup says he's never heard of a commonwealth's attorney candidate calling for a death penalty moratorium. "I'm delighted," he says.
Incumbent Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman says he has concerns about the death penalty, but thinks a moratorium is more properly led by citizens, the legislature or the governor than by a commonwealth's attorney.
"From the perspective of the commonwealth's attorney," says Chapman, "I have the obligation to enforce all the laws of the commonwealth. It's not possible or appropriate for us to suspend prosecution of certain laws.
"It doesn't mean we wouldn't consider the application in context of our own community," he adds.
Chapman distinguishes between a moratorium on the death penalty and the need to prosecute capital cases. "Capital offenses that carry mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole are perfectly appropriate to prosecute," he says.
Deaton says he's opposed to using capital punishment statutes for any reason.
As for threatening suspects with the death penalty, says Chapman, "That's such an unlikely alternative in our community, it has no leverage. A community like ours is unlikely to return the death penalty."
Dorian Lester, the former Patricia Kluge bodyguard who murdered a jeweler in 1997, is the only capital case that's gone before a jury during Chapman's tenure, and Lester was sentenced to life without parole.
Calling that murder a "coldly rational case," says Chapman, "If capital punishment is not appropriate or likely in a case like that, when is it appropriate?"
Currently eight men are on death row in Virginia. Chapman acknowledges the death penalty is more likely in certain cases– rural more than urban jurisdictions, a person of color more than a Caucasian, people who are poor or who have mental health issues.
"Reasonable people should question its fairness over time," he says.
"This issue of the death penalty is one of the reasons I'm running," says Deaton. He'd also like more transparency and a citizens advisory committee for the commonwealth's attorney office.
The commonwealth's attorney makes the decision whether to prosecute a case as first- or second-degree murder, felony murder or capital murder. "I don't think any one person should be sitting there deciding these important issues by himself without citizen feedback," declares Deaton, who was city prosecutor until Chapman unseated him in 1993.
Deaton also has proposed making marijuana possession a disorderly conduct charge rather than the current penalty that can have "draconian collateral consequences."
Deaton and Chapman will face off in the June 11 Democratic primary– although Deaton still doesn't have his paperwork filed with the city registrar's office. He has until March 28.