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Halifax Courthouse nearly ready to welcome back courts

Renovations to Halifax County’s courthouse are nearly complete, setting the stage for court activities to move back into the historic facility in late March.

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Opinion

Reversal in the works

SoVaNow.com / January 27, 2021
Let’s spin the wheel and see where it lands:

» Virginia is on the cusp of becoming the first state in the South to abolish the death penalty. Senate Bill 1165 is working its way through the General Assembly and is expected to pass with solid support of Democratic majorities in the Senate and House. Gov. Ralph Northam has promised to sign the bill. Virginia, which has executed more inmates than any state in the country, is poised to reject the ultimate punishment seemingly once and for all.

This is a positive development and a sound political move, despite the inevitable campaign ads that will depict supporters of this legislation as soft on crime. The last capital murder trial I covered as a reporter was the horrific killing of 84-year-old Charlotte Rice, who was slain at her home by James Lloyd Terry, a registered sex offender. The defendant — a truly wretched individual — was convicted of sexually assaulting, then murdering Mrs. Rice, who first came to know her killer through the kindly act of offering him shelter. Her death was a heinous crime, every bit as horrifying as you can imagine, and it took years and untold sums of money to bring the death penalty trial to court. Retired Circuit Judge Joel Cunningham, who presided at the trial, eventually opted to sentence the defendant to life in prison without the possibility of parole. It was a ruling that was greeted with much outrage by the family. It was also a courageous decision that, as events are likely to bear out, will prove to be wise.

The defendant in this particular case was severely damaged — mentally, intellectually, in every way you can imagine a damaged person can be — and it took many, many months before he was even deemed competent to stand trial. None of this excuses his atrocities, but state of mind rightly warrants consideration when judges and juries mete out punishments. Because the death penalty is irrevocable and absolute, it is time-consuming and mind-bogglingly expensive to administer, leading to delays and reversals that, to me, would be a form of trauma all over again. This doesn’t even get to the biggest problem with the entire process — that a court will make the wrong decision and impose death on an innocent person. Not only can it happen, it almost certainly has happened. Since 1989, there have been 18 people in Virginia who have been exonerated after being wrongfully convicted of murder — in part, due to advances in DNA evidence. How many other defendants were not so fortunate?

Although the imminent repeal of Virginia’s death penalty is inseparable from Democratic control of the state house, it would be a mistake to say this is the work of one party only. I have written some unflattering things in the past about Republican Senator William Stanley of Franklin County (his Senate district extends into the western half of Halifax County), and I meant every word of it: Stanley earned the lasting enmity of uranium mining opponents by playing footsie with mining interests a long time ago, behind the backs of those who put in tremendous effort to stop yellowcake extraction in Pittsylvania County. But in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, let’s offer a word of praise today for Senator Stanley: he is one of the sponsors of SB1165, with Fairfax Democrat Scott Surovell. From the press clips, one discovers that Stanley is a long-time opponent of the death penalty. By all accounts he’s a very capable lawyer in life outside the General Assembly, so one imagines he has a clear-eyed perspective on the futility of most death penalty prosecutions. At any rate, it’s heartening to see support for abolition come from both sides of the aisle.

On a similar note, earlier this month a bipartisan group of 21 current and former prosecutors in Virginia — local commonwealth’s attorneys, deputy commonwealth’s attorneys, and two former Virginia Attorneys General, one Republican (Mark Earley), one Democratic (William Broaddus), signed a letter calling for the end of the death penalty in Virginia. The language of the signers is striking: “As prosecutors with different beliefs and backgrounds, we do not all agree on the morality of capital punishment,” the letter read. “However, all of us do agree on the public policy goal of death penalty repeal. The death penalty is a failed government program.”

One of the signers has a connection to Southside Virginia: Eugene Oliver is a former Mecklenburg County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney. It’s been around a decade since Oliver, now a Harrisonburg attorney, last practiced at the Mecklenburg prosecutor’s office. It’s also been almost a decade since a Virginia jury imposed the death penalty, (2011 was the last time it happened.) The last executions in the Commonwealth took place in 2017. Capital punishment, functionally speaking, is a relic of a bygone era. It’s about to become a relic in full in our own time.

***

Like the weather, broadband internet is one of those subjects everyone talks about, but no one does anything about. That has changed in recent years, in good part locally due to Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative’s deep drive into the fiber optic internet business (through MEC’s subsidiary, EMPOWER Broadband.) But let’s face it: with the year we’ve had, pandemic and all, the paucity of high-speed internet throughout the country has gained overdue recognition as one of America’s chief disgraces, and it’s been a very competitive field.

If there’s any one thing I would hope for out of the new Biden Administration, it would be massive commitment to rebuild America’s infrastructure, most emphatically up to and including a true national program to hardwire the entire country for high-speed net access.

Just to illustrate how far we are from such a hopeful state of affairs, MEC’s EMPOWER unit has run into headwinds as it looks to run fiber optic broadband to areas in south-southwest Halifax County near Virginia. The cause of the delay is grotesquely convoluted: CenturyLink claims to provide high-speed service to enough customers there to protect the territory that it has been granted by the FCC, and believe me, the rest of the story would be a headache for you to read, much less for me to write. The takeaway here is that large incumbent providers have wormed their way into a position of doing virtually nothing by sheer force of their market size, their ability to obtain protected regulatory status from the federal government, and relatedly, because of an atrocious Federal Communications Commission under the Trump Administration. The stables of that agency need to be hosed down and cleaned out if rural America is to have any hope of seeing major progress on rural broadband. That, plus someone needs to come up with a whole lotta money.

Hence my fondest wish that our new White House will get an infrastructure package in the trillions of dollars out of Congress, in contrast to the penny-ante nonsense we’ve seen so far. Entities that include the Virginia Tobacco Commission and the state’s VATI program (the acronym stands for Virginia Telecommunications Initiative) have tried to fill the breach in by funding internet access in rural Virginia, but this is one of those cases, as so often arises in life, where size matters. The need for a broadband internet buildout of unprecedented size and scope, especially in rural America, should be beyond question by now. Go big or go home.




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