Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Washington Post Editorial on Percy Walton

From June 12, 2008:

A Courageous Commutation
Mr. Kaine spares the life of a man on death row.

"Timothy M. Kaine (D), a confidant of Barack Obama's and the first governor outside Illinois to endorse the senator's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, is routinely mentioned as a vice-presidential prospect. Many politicians in his position might bend or suspend principle to keep such prospects alive. But this week, Mr. Kaine commuted the death sentence of a mentally deficient triple killer to life in prison without parole. Under the circumstances, the decision, which could well provide convenient fodder for Republican attack ads in a national campaign, was courageous as well as fair-minded and fact-based.

As a candidate for governor in 2005, Mr. Kaine, a devout Catholic and lifelong opponent of capital punishment, said he would allow executions to proceed as a function of his office in respect of Virginia law. He has been true to his word, permitting five executions to go forward, more than any state except Texas, Oklahoma and Ohio. But the case of Percy L. Walton rightly gave him pause when he first reviewed it in 2006, and it was Mr. Walton's death sentence that the governor commuted on Monday.

There is no doubt about Mr. Walton's guilt, or the brutality of his crime: In 1996, shortly after his 18th birthday, he shot three people at close range, including an elderly couple, Jessie and Elizabeth Kendrick, in the Southside city of Danville. A year later he pleaded guilty to the three murders.

The question of whether he was or remains competent to face execution has prompted the governor's scrutiny. Confronted with abundant evidence -- from the state Department of Corrections and other sources -- that Mr. Walton is mentally retarded, profoundly confused and only dimly aware of his sentence, the governor twice postponed his execution (originally set for June 2006) to allow further evaluation. Before giving the green light, Mr. Kaine wanted to be satisfied that Mr. Walton met the test laid down by the Supreme Court more than two decades ago: that the condemned man is fit for execution only if he understands that he's been sentenced to death and the reason for that sentence.

At his best, Mr. Walton seemed only vaguely aware of his situation. He told one psychiatrist that he expected to have access to a telephone and a job at Burger King after his execution. Over time, experts who assessed Mr. Walton have disagreed on his mental capacity and ability to grasp the fate that awaited him. So have judges. Ruling on his case in 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, perhaps the nation's most conservative federal court, split 7 to 6 in deciding that he was mentally fit to be executed. Since then, there seems little doubt that his condition has deteriorated. Given the Supreme Court standard, it would have been a travesty of justice for Mr. Kaineto permit the state to execute such a man. In commuting his sentence, Mr. Kaine recognized and applied that standard, acting with guts and decency.


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