On April 3, 1959, Elmer Bruner was executed by electric chair at the Moundsville Penitentiary for murder. Two years earlier, a Cabell County jury had convicted Bruner of beating Ruby Miller to death with a claw hammer after she discovered him during a home burglary.
Bruner was the last person executed in the state of West Virginia. Six years later, the West Virginia Legislature passed a bill abolishing the death penalty and Governor Hulett Smith signed HB 517 into law.
There have been many attempts over the years to bring back the death penalty. Former Republican Delegate John Overington from Berkeley County used to introduce a bill every session, but it never passed. The Legislature begins its 60-day regular session Wednesday, and the death penalty bill will be back. This time it will come from one of the most powerful leaders in the Legislature.
Senate President Craig Blair (R, Berkeley) reiterated during a West Virginia Press Association legislative look-ahead last Friday that he will take what has been a rare step for him as leader of the Senate and sponsor a bill reinstating the death penalty for certain drug offenders.
“I want to seek capital punishment for the illicit manufacture and wholesale distribution of fentanyl,” Blair said.
State figures show about three to four people die every day in West Virginia from a drug overdose and many more are rushed to the hospital or treated by emergency workers. Most overdoses involve fentanyl, which is 50 times more powerful than morphine.
Blair said even if capital punishment returns, he doubts anyone will ever be put to death. Instead, he sees it as a deterrent. “What we’re wanting to do is send a message out to these animals that are selling this, and manufacturing this—stay the hell out of West Virginia.”
This will trigger an emotional debate during the upcoming session.
The legislature has trended increasingly conservative, and Republicans are typically more comfortable with capital punishment than Democrats. Also, frustration is growing in West Virginia communities where the drug issue continues to cause waves of misery.
But there will be questions about whether the death penalty threat would be a true deterrent. In addition, most fentanyl manufacturing is in Mexico, and who qualifies as a “wholesale distributor” will have been defined in the legislation.
West Virginia is among 23 states, along with neighboring Maryland and Virginia, that no longer have capital punishment, while 27 states retain the death penalty. However, typically that punishment is reserved for murder and not drug offenders.
Proponents of bringing back the death penalty here will no doubt argue that distributing fentanyl is tantamount to killing someone because the drug is so toxic. Authorities here can charge individuals with delivery of drugs causing a death already, but applying the death penalty would be a significant enhancement of that charge.
Blair appears passionate about this, so the burden of proof is on him, as well as others who will support his bill. They will have to demonstrate, with facts and expert testimony, that capital punishment would be an effective tool. Frustration with the drug problem and hopeful remedies are not enough to reverse a policy that has stood for nearly 60 years.