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Could death penalty return to W.Va.?

December 26, 1998|By DAVE McMILLION

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Considering the number of slayings recently in the Eastern Panhandle, a local lawmaker said he believes there is support for bringing back the death penalty in West Virginia.

Del. Larry Faircloth, R-Berkeley, said the violence is proof that the current system of punishment does not work.

Faircloth said he believes the idea of the death penalty should be put before the voters for a decision.

"I personally believe it would prevail," said Faircloth.

There have been two shooting deaths in Berkeley and Jefferson counties since November.

Police charged a Bunker Hill, W.Va., man after the man's former wife and boyfriend were shot with a .32-caliber rifle in a Ranson, W.Va., duplex on Nov. 16.

Tara Widmyer was found dead inside her house. Larry Miller, 32, of Charles Town, W.Va., survived the attack.

Police spent the two days following the shooting looking for the gunman, who investigators believe stole two cars during the time period. The next day, William Trampas Widmyer, 28, of Bunker Hill, turned himself in to police in Woodstock, Va. Widmyer was charged with first-degree murder, malicious assault and burglary,


On Dec. 11, Jose "Joey" DeLoa was shot five times in the head and upper body in front of a house in the 300 block of Rosemont Avenue in Martinsburg.

Officials say DeLoa allegedly insulted Chad Joseph Cordell and won $2 from him in a card game. Cordell, 22, of Martinsburg, is charged with first-degree murder in the case, according to court records.

In October, Michael Newell of Martinsburg was found guilty of felony murder in the death of his 7-year-old niece.

Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Games-Neely contended Newell killed Jessica Newell because she struggled against his attempt to molest her on Sept. 18, 1997, after he lured her from a Martinsburg bowling alley with baseball cards.

Her body was found on North Mountain two days later.

The verdict against Newell, 40, of Winchester Pike, carried a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.

Del. John Overington has tried for 13 years to get a death penalty law passed, but to no avail. This year, he thinks the mood is different.

"There's more support for it this year. I think the public is getting more and more concerned about crime, and they want us to implement laws to protect them," said Overington, R-Berkeley.

Besides introducing a death penalty bill, Overington said he may also introduce the death penalty as a constitutional amendment in the upcoming session of the Legislature, which begins in January.

A constitutional amendment to put the death penalty in place would go before the voters if approved by at least two-thirds of the members in the House and Senate, said Overington.

The death penalty was abolished in West Virginia in 1972.

Maryland and Pennsylvania have capital punishment.

Overington said he thinks Faircloth's interest in the death penalty stems from the fact there is increased support for it in the current administration. Overington said there was not much interest in reviving the death penalty during former Gov. Gaston Caperton's administration because it was known Caperton would have vetoed any such legislation.

Overington said Gov. Cecil Underwood gives stronger support for the death penalty.

"He is not leading the charge, but he would not veto it," said Overington.

Other lawmakers say there is not enough support for the death penalty in the Legislature, and they worry about innocent people being put to death if capital punishment is legalized.

Sen.-elect John Unger, D-Berkeley, said the Fred Zain case is enough cause for concern over any death penalty legislation.

Zain was a former state police serologist who allegedly fabricated evidence in as many as 134 cases from 1986 to 1989, according to the state Supreme Court. Numerous prisoners wanted their convictions overturned because evidence against them was handled by Zain, according to The Associated Press.

"Hard as we try to make it perfect, it is not perfect," said Del. Charles Trump, referring to the judicial system.

Although the Morgan County Republican said there is support for the death penalty, he has mixed feelings.

Overington said his proposal would have safeguards to prevent innocent people being killed. People sentenced to death could not be convicted solely on circumstantial evidence and the person's criminal history would also be a factor in whether a death penalty is issued, Overington said.

Sen. Herb Snyder said he has been cautious about the death penalty, too, but his support increased after the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, in which 168 people died.

"I could vote for the bill if it's in the right form," said Snyder, D-Jefferson.

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