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Death penalty should be rarely invoked, but not abolished

Virginia’s legislature has moved to ban the death penalty, a popular action in some quarters. Before Gov. Ralph Northam signs the bill into law, he should think about three victims: Debbie Dudley Davis, Susan Hellams and Susan Tucker.

The three — along with two other women — were raped and killed by Timothy Wilson Spencer, a serial killer who became known as the Southside Strangler. And there’s no doubt — he was the first defendant in U.S. history convicted on the basis of DNA evidence. In a sense, he himself made the case that he murdered these women.

Spencer was executed in Virginia’s electric chair in 1994, seven years after the crimes. Do you want to be the person who says Spencer should have lived? Just 25 at the time of the first killing, he would not be 60 years old today.

While Virginia has executed more convicts than any other state going back to the colonial era, Pennsylvania has been judicious — sometimes overly generous — when it comes to death row.

After the Supreme Court lifted its moratorium on the death penalty in 1976, the Keystone State’s death chamber remained idle for nearly 20 years until Keith Zettlemoyer was executed by lethal injection for taking the life of Charles Devetsco, a news reporter from Sunbury. Zettlemoyer had exhausted all appeals when his life ended at SCI-Rockview on May 2, 1995.

Only two more have happened since. Later the same year, Leon Moser was executed for killing his ex-wife and their daughters. Four years later, Gary Heidnik met the same fate for kidnapping, torturing and raping six women, killing two of them.

Our state’s ultimate penalty has not been imposed since, although death penalty trials continue in Pennsylvania. Just last month, Snyder County District Attorney Mike Piecuch announced he would seek the death penalty against Christopher Fernanders, accused of stalking and killing his ex-wife and her date outside a Selinsgrove restaurant the year before.

Lest we forget, it was in our state where Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted of gunning down a Philadelphia police officer, and continues to taunt the system (prosecutors agreed to life without parole in 2011 after his death sentence was overturned).

A sentence as final as taking a life should be sparing and sure. It should be reserved for the most heinous cases and perhaps adjudicated through a separate system to ensure fairness for both the accused and the victims’ families.

Virginia will not be the first state to eliminate this option, nor the last. But in doing so, it joins 22 other states that have announced they will not impose what many still believe to be a reasonable penalty against those who deserve no other.

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