As I was roaming the House of Delegates side of the West Virginia State Capitol Tuesday looking for Delegate John Overington, someone said, "You mean Doctor Death?"
Actually, the long-serving Republican from Berkeley County bears only a slight resemblance to Jack Kevorkian, the late doctor who practiced assisted suicide. No, Overington should be considered more of a "happy warrior" for reinstatement of the death penalty, if there could be such a thing.
This year, for the 26th consecutive year, Overington is introducing a bill to reinstate the death penalty in West Virginia. 25 times Overington has introduced the bill and 25 times it has failed, but he’s back again this year with HB 2526.
"Some things just take a little longer," Overington deadpanned on Metronews Talkline Tuesday.
West Virginia abolished the death penalty in 1965, and its last execution was in 1959 when Elmer Brunner went to the electric chair for beating Ruby Miller to death with a hammer while burglarizing her Huntington home.
Overington has been the most vocal supporter through the years for bringing back executions. He cites polls that show West Virginians back the death penalty, and he believes executing the worst of the worst is a deterrent since that person can never commit another crime.
He points to the example of Ronald Williams. He murdered a Beckley police officer and was serving life in the state penitentiary at Moundsville when he led a daring escape in 1979. Williams shot and killed an off-duty state trooper during the escape and also murdered an Arizona man while on the run.
Overington says executing Williams after the first murder would have prevented other lives from being taken. Williams was later recaptured and is now serving life at the state prison at Mt. Olive.
But while West Virginia has what Overington might consider the poster child for reinstatement of the death penalty, it also has a tragic example of a flaw in the legal system.
The late Fred Zain was a forensics expert who falsified evidence and lied in testimony against criminal defendants while working in crime labs in West Virginia and Texas. In West Virginia, a man was convicted of rape based on Zain’s testimony. He was set free and another man was later arrested for the crime. In Texas, one defendant convicted of murder based on Zain’s testimony missed getting the death penalty by the vote of one juror.
Overington says his bill has built-in protections to try to eliminate the chance of a mistake by allowing a person sentenced to death to apply for DNA testing, which the state must pay for if the defendant cannot.
Overington’s biggest hurdle, however, is that there simply is no desire by the Governor or the leadership of the legislature to open up what would undoubtedly be an emotional and time-consuming debate.
So the bill will fail again this year. 0-26 for Overington. But he seems undeterred. Maybe next year. Maybe the year after.
It’s possible one day that a horrible crime will trigger a public outcry for the death penalty. It’s happened before in other states. If and when that happens here, Overington will have his bill ready to go.