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Justice Delayed in Virginia


In April, 2001 John Langley was working on a roofing job in Danville, Virginia, and he shared a motel room with Christopher Emmett. He loaned Emmett some money, which Emmett used to buy cocaine. When Mr. Langley refused to loan him more, Emmett bashed his head in with a brass lamp. Punishment for this crime will not be carried out as scheduled tonight but will be delayed a few more months.

There is no doubt of guilt in this case. Mr. Langley's blood was on Emmett's boots and clothing, and Emmett made a full, taped confession after receiving Miranda warnings. The primary issue, as described in the Fourth Circuit opinion, was the standard claim that trial counsel was ineffective for not presenting enough of the abuse excuse.

The Supreme Court denied a stay today, but four Justices said they would grant one. The Governor of Virginia granted a reprieve to allow the certiorari petition to be fully considered in the usual course.

Mr. Langley's family is understandably disappointed, according to this AP story by Kristen Gelineau. However, the case has proceeded relatively swiftly in six years from crime to federal habeas appeal. That is about right for a case with no colorable claim of innocence.


While Governor Kaine's decision is supportable on some level, the fetishism with respect to the rights of murderers is unseemly when compared to the anguish of the victims' family when last-minute stays are granted. There is but one inescapable conclusion--the Governor, who made a discretionary decision, chose to elevate a murderer's interest over that of the victim's family. Hopefully, Virginia's courts will take heed of the Governor's decision and set dates of execution that allow for the normal cert. process to proceed.

Governor Kaine's decision has some merit, although, it probably would have made sense for him to act earlier. Decisions of federal judges, such as Judge Frost, to allow murderers indefinite stays with respect to last-minute lethal injection claims can be fairly said to be exercising their equitable powers to favor murderers. Speculation regarding their motivation for doing so, in my opinion, is warranted.

I can understand why the governor issued the stay given the SCOTUS cases that mandate consideration of psychological mitigating factors. But in this case, I can't see what's relevant. Emmett reports no abuse and even the defense expert suggests that Emmett is merely an antisocial person. The COA opinion says that Emmett's father was an alcoholic. So what? Everyone comes from an imperfect family and background. It would be nice if SCOTUS would stop complaining about the uncertainties of psychiatric diagnoses (cf: Clark v. Arizona) and set a line in the sand that only severe mental illnesses should result in mitigation.

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