Friends and family of murder victims testify for reinstatement of death penalty

February 15, 2011|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD |
  • In this Oct. 17, 2010, file photo, Elizabeth Devonshire puts her hand over her heart as she talks about her daughter Angela, who was killed in a fire in June. Devonshire is holding her grandson Daronte White, who survived the fire. In the background is Sidney Devonshire, Angela's father.
Herald-Mail file photo

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — The father of Angela Kay Devonshire, a 22-year-old Bunker Hill, W.Va., woman who was slain in June 2010, told West Virginia lawmakers that his visit to the state Capitol complex in Charleston on Tuesday was for justice.

"My heart is shattered and broken, and I'm trying to find a way to put it back together," Sidney Devonshire said in a public hearing that was broadcast live from the House chamber via the Internet.

Devonshire was among several people who spoke in favor of House Bill 2526, legislation that proposes the reinstatement of the death penalty for first-degree murder cases in West Virginia. The state abolished capital punishment in 1965.

Antonio Prophet of Lorton, Va., has been charged with two counts of murder in the death of Devonshire and her 3-year-old son.

"On June 6, I woke up to an inferno that I had never seen in my life," Devonshire said, recounting how Prophet allegedly slit his daughter's throat and then set her garage-style apartment home on fire, also killing her son.

The hearing for the death penalty legislation, which has long been championed by Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley, also attracted significant opposition Tuesday from a number of church leaders and others who argued against giving the government power to end someone's life.

The Rev. Dennis Sparks, executive director of the West Virginia Council of Churches, recounted the murder of a cousin, and said he empathized with the families and friends of murder victims, but ultimately concluded the death penalty was not right.

In response to death penalty advocates who quote the Bible as saying "an eye for an eye" and "a tooth for a tooth," Sparks said Jesus told those afflicted to "turn the other cheek, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you."

In advocating for better laws to protect victims from violent crimes, Devonshire said his daughter had her problems like anyone else, but didn't deserve to die.  

"The justice system has been broken," Devonshire said. "The laws that are written, I feel, are working for the criminals, not for the victims."

Overington, who credited Devonshire's advocacy for adding momentum to the death penalty issue, said petitions signed by about 750 people were made part of the record in legislative proceedings Tuesday. House Joint Resolution No. 38, a separate proposal that would allow state voters to decide the death penalty issue, also was introduced Tuesday.

Attempts have been made to amend the legislation into other bills, but the proposal by itself has never been taken up by committee or put to a vote on the House floor in the 25 years that Overington said he has introduced it. Still, the House's most-senior member said he holds out hope.

Regardless, Overington commended House Judiciary Committee Chairman Tim Miley for agreeing to hold the public hearing, which he said was the first such proceeding on the issue in at least 15 to 20 years.

Among those joining Devonshire for the hearing in support of the death penalty legislation were Paula Roll, a friend of Katherine Sharp, who was stabbed numerous times by her estranged boyfriend, Donald B. Surber, in 2009, and Deborah Newell, mother of Jessica Newell, who was murdered at age 7 by a family member in 1997.

Surber was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to Sharp's murder in August 2010.

"We're educating him and feeding him, and I personally wouldn't mind spending my tax money on putting him to death," Roll said.

In a tearful plea, Newell asked lawmakers to "put these animals where they belong."

"She didn't have to die at the hands of this animal," Newell said. "He's an animal. It would have to take an animal to kill this little child."

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