By Mannix Porterfield
An outraged citizenry, angered over the brazen murder of a sheriff, is calling for West Virginia to revive capital punishment, an Eastern Panhandle lawmaker disclosed Friday.
For all but two of his 29 years in the Legislature, Delegate John Overington, R-Berkeley, has sought to restore the death penalty, but his bills never get a committee hearing.
Overington feels the noontime Wednesday shooting of Mingo County Sheriff Eugene Crum might change enough minds in the 2014 session to look at capital punishment as an option.
“I think it might help,” Overington said Friday. “It has raised public awareness.”
Overington has received a number of e-mails and telephone calls, asking why the state doesn’t put capital offenders to death.
West Virginia outlawed the death penalty in 1965, and no serious effort has been mounted since then to restore it.
“People feel that the person who gunned down the sheriff should be put to death,” Overington said.
Overington agrees, but HB2595, with bipartisan support, cannot be considered because Wednesday was “crossover day,” when each chamber had to get its bills approved.
Crum built a reputation for going after drug traffickers in Mingo County, promising before he pinned on the badge that he would clean the streets of them.
Overington is convinced his fatal shooting, as he sat in his patrol car, eating lunch, as was his custom, was linked to drug trafficking in southern West Virginia — a social malady that political leaders have termed a “scourge.”
“It seems like there’s a connection,” Overington said.
“I guess it will come out the next few weeks when you have a trial about where somebody was offering him drugs or incentive to kill this person. That’s what we’ll find out later. I think capital punishment in this case would send a message that we don’t want drug dealers coming from out of the area.”
Among co-sponsors of Overington’s bill were Delegates Marty Gearheart, John Shott and Joe Ellington, all R-Mercer.
Overington declined to speculate on why the Democratic leadership consistently refused to run his bill before a House committee.
But the longest-serving delegate in the House pointed to polls — scientific and informal — showing at least 80 percent of the public favors putting killers to death.
“One of the concerns about capital punishment is whether the person is guilty or not,” Overington said.
“And in this case, I don’t think there’s any question about the guilt. If the trial proceeds as it may, where he is convicted, the question is, why should we pay for his health care and his Christmas dinners and Thanksgiving dinners for the next 30 or 40 or 50 years, as well as his health care benefits?”
Overington’s bill zeroes in on “aggravating circumstances,” singling out the murder of a judge, police or corrections officer and firefighter, but any murder would expose the slayer to capital punishment.
The measure also devotes language to contract killings and kidnappings, or using a hostage as a shield, and the hijacking of a public conveyance, primarily aircraft.
Even if the leadership blocks his efforts, Overington says the public is on his side.
A Gallup Poll, for instance, found Americans overwhelmingly want certain criminals put to death.
“They did a breakdown by age, religion, occupant, income level — the whole nine yards,” the delegate said.
“In every category, there is strong support, whether you’re Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Whether you’re high-income or low-income. Wheth-er you’re well educated or not.”