The Northern Virginia Daily's Political Depot

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Area delegate has two bills to toughen Va. death penalty law; B1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

RICHMOND — One of two efforts by a freshman legislator from Woodstock to make Virginia’s death penalty stronger made its first contested pass through the House of Delegates with flying colors Thursday.

House Bill 1311, authored by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, would make killing a witness who is cooperating with police a capital offense.

The bill is a reaction to the killing of Brenda Paz, a 17-year-old gang informant, some 21⁄2 years ago.
Members of MS-13, a violent street gang that has spread across the country, killed Paz to keep her from testifying against fellow gang members.

“She was lured back to the life she had known by her so-called friends so she could be silenced as a witness in their prosecution,” Gilbert told fellow delegates during his speech on the House floor.

Under Virginia law, those accused of Paz’s murder weren’t eligible for the death penalty. That prompted prosecutors to call in federal prosecutors.

“We felt like we didn’t have the tools to have the choice of prosecuting those folks locally,” said Gilbert, a former assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Shenandoah County who now holds a similar, albeit part-time, post in Warren County.

“Not that we would have, but we would have liked to have the option,” he said.

Extending the death penalty in this case is designed to give would-be killers second thoughts.

“It protects the foundation of our justice system,” Gilbert said.

“When you have witnesses who are willing to come forward who are willing to testify to drug dealing and murders, they should be afforded protection,” he said. Victims of violent crime are already covered under death penalty statues in the hopes of giving attackers pause before killing their victims.

As are law enforcement officers, he said.

But “unlike police officers, [witnesses are] not trained, they’re not volunteering for this mission. They’re not armed, they’re not prepared for what they’re about to get into,” he said.

The bill, which was passed on its second reading with no dissent and no debate, has the support of the Commonwealth’s Attorneys Association, which seldom speaks to bills regarding the death penalty, Gilbert said.

Gilbert’s other bill dealing with the death penalty, HB 782, would make co-conspirators in a murder, not just the actual “triggerman,” liable for the death penalty.

Delegates agreed unanimously to let the second bill “pass by for the day,” deferring action on the bill’s second of three required readings to be postponed for a day.

The parliamentary maneuver was designed to give both bills the best chance at passing.

“It’s a little complicated to do two death penalty bills on the same day,” Gilbert said.

HB 1311 must pass through the House of Delegates one more time before it is sent to the Senate.