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Final Wishes

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Do we really need another Back Page about the death penalty?

That depends. Do we really need another execution in Virginia?

In 2006, four people were executed in Virginia, two executions coming in back-to-back weeks. There were no executions in 2005. Who would have guessed that "the machinery of death," to use Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun's apt description, would crank back up during Gov. Tim Kaine's time in office?

When I think back over 2006, of course, circumstances close to home come to mind like a recurring nightmare. People reading this may wonder at first if I've forgotten the murders of the Harvey, Tucker-Baskerville and Casper family members that began the year with a bone-chilling blast of shock and horror. I have not.

But I also recall the prosecutions in those cases to date, and the inconsistent and inexplicable results that the legal system has served up so far. (The trial in the Casper family murders is scheduled for the end of January.)

In the court proceedings in the Harvey and Tucker-Baskerville cases, the death penalty was imposed only for the murders of the Harvey children. The lives of any of the adults did not carry the same weight in the balance of justice, apparently.

It was as if the death penalty had to be imposed for the sake of the children, in the name of the children, and I can't imagine anything further from the truth. Would a child demand that the man be killed for his crime, despite his pleas for mercy and forgiveness? Is that what we teach our children?

I think about this whenever I read the stories about the Harvey children and how their young friends have chosen to remember them. These stories are so touching because they are affirmations of the innocence and joy of life. They speak to the heart of a child.

Our own insistence on death as satisfaction speaks of a cold-hearted, death-dealing legal system that has, truly, taken on a life of its own. It offers no reasons for imposing death in one case but not in another. No wonder the American Bar Association went on record in February 1997 calling for a nationwide moratorium on executions.

What will 2007 bring with respect to the death penalty in Virginia and elsewhere? I have no idea. Then again, even if I tried to predict, you would not want to bet on it.

I was once naive enough to think (and hope and pray) that the first execution after the death penalty was reinstated across the nation in 1976 would also be the last. Thirty years ago, Gary Gilmore arranged for himself to be shot by a firing squad in Utah, playing up every detail for the benefit of an all-too-eager audience. It should have ended right there; instead, that one execution fed a public blood lust for many more to come.

Virginia has helped lead the way in executions since then, second only to Texas. It is a distant second, to be sure, but realize that Texas has a much larger population and a hang-'em-high tradition that borders on crazed public ritual.

Instead of dealing with the death-penalty issue head on, Gov. Kaine has tried to "position himself." He has often said that he has a moral opposition to the death penalty, but that he will nonetheless carry out the dictates of the law.

When moral conviction comes into conflict with the law, I always thought moral conviction was supposed to win out. Gov. Kaine knows well the example of Sir Thomas More, the Catholic Church's patron of lawyers and politicians. This great man opposed Henry VIII on moral grounds, and yes, he was executed for it.

Kaine has lately worked to shift attention to his suggestion that, since death by lethal injection is a much more humane procedure, the inmate's option to die in the electric chair should be taken away.

The idea that death by lethal injection is a humane option is in serious doubt right at this point, though. Death by lethal injection has been put on hold recently in California and Florida.

In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush issued a moratorium following a lethal injection execution that was anything but smooth and humane. In California, a federal judge entered a temporary stay on lethal injection executions, finding that the particular procedure used could not be guaranteed to be free of the "risk of an Eighth Amendment violation," referring to the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Similar legal challenges are under way in a number of states.

Of course, these side issues distract us from the main point: It's wrong to take another person's life when he poses no continuing threat of harm. Any child can tell you that. Yet the state argues to take the life of defendants in case after case.

Perhaps it is time for Gov. Kaine — with sufficient indications of popular support — to act on his moral conviction and do the right thing. Perhaps it is time to dismantle the machinery of death forever. In that way, Virginia can abandon a barbaric practice and move forward to take its stand with the vast majority of governments around the world. S

As a former attorney, Mike Sarahan worked on aspects of the federal challenges brought by death row inmates James and Linwood Briley.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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