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The Politics of Death

Death-penalty opponents would like to think that the public is moving toward a preference for life in prison without parole for heinous crimes, polls suggest that backing for executions remains strong.


The prisoner never had that opportunity, but he did his part for the Clinton campaign through his high-profile death.

Recently, Virginia and the nation have had reason to revisit execution politics. Last month, Democrat Tim Kaine won election as the state's next governor, despite a furious assault on his opposition to capital punishment. And Gov. Mark Warner, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, issued his first death-row clemency order last week.

Will that action help or hurt Warner's political ambitions? And does Kaine's victory signal any change of heart among voters toward capital punishment? If not, what does it say?

While death-penalty opponents, including me, would like to think that the public is moving toward a preference for life in prison without parole for heinous crimes, polls suggest that backing for executions remains strong.

The Quality of Life in Virginia survey, conducted annually at the Center for Survey Research at Virginia Tech, offers the best, long-term measure. The 2005 results, due to be released later this month, show that 73 percent of Virginians "strongly" or "somewhat" support capital punishment, while 24 percent oppose it.

That's down from 77 percent in 2003. But in 2002, before the I-95 snipers wreaked carnage, support for capital punishment stood at 68 percent.

Meanwhile, 46 percent of those surveyed this year say they'd eliminate the punishment in favor of life in prison without parole. But pre-snipers, a majority — 52 percent — held that position. Clearly, John Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo had a powerful impact on public views.

Even so, the Kaine campaign reveals a subtle shift. Dozens of death-row exonerations, many stemming from DNA testing, have created a crack in public solidarity. Because fairness matters to voters, opposition — particularly faith-based opposition — may be a less politically damning view.

Americans "want the guilty executed, but only the guilty," said Pete Brodnitz, who surveyed public opinion for the Kaine campaign.

Recognizing the potential danger in Kaine's longtime opposition to capital punishment, the campaign conducted focus groups last January and February in Virginia Beach, Roanoke and Fairfax.

Participants were white, conservative, married, church-going voters who said they would not vote for a death-penalty opponent. However, when Kaine spoke directly to the camera, promised to carry out executions of guilty individuals and linked his views to his Catholic faith, voters said, "Oh, now I get it," Brodnitz said.

The keys to neutralizing the issue—in addition to opponent Jerry Kilgore's overly emotional ads—were Kaine's calm, direct manner and his emphasis on the importance of life, Brodnitz believes. Not every candidate can duplicate that mix with authority, but Kaine's campaign proves the public's door isn't shut to someone who can.

As for Warner's clemency action, I'm not one who believes any governor decides a matter of life or death based on personal advantage. There might be a few somewhere who have; I'm confident Warner's not among them.

That said, the action probably doesn't hurt his presidential ambitions and might even help a slight bit with the Democratic base.

Under Warner's order, Robin Lovitt, a former Arlington pool hall worker convicted of slaying the night manager, will spend the rest of his life behind bars,

The governor's action resulted from a clerk's error, not from doubts about Lovitt's guilt. When the clerk destroyed the primary physical evidence in the case, a gun and a jacket, Lovitt lost any hope that post-conviction testing might clear him.

Since many death-penalty opponents — though far from all — have a liberal political slant, Warner's action should appeal to the portion of the party least in step with his pro-business, centrist philosophy. Warner's action also saved Virginia from entering the 1,000th name since 1976 in the nation's execution record-book, a distinction the governor was probably happy to avoid.

While potentially benefiting Warner, the Lovitt case demonstrates bipartisan interest in fair executions. Among those urging clemency were former GOP Attorney General Mark Earley and former state Solicitor General Bill Hurd.

American voters as a whole still believe that grisly crimes warrant death. But they appear to have evolved a bit since Rickey Ray Rector gave up the ghost.

Not only has the U.S. Supreme Court recently banned the execution of juveniles and the mentally retarded, but even conservative states like Virginia see shades of gray in an issue once colored black and white.S

Margaret Edds is an editorial writer for the Virginian-Pilot.This column first ran in the Virginian-Pilot.

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


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