Saturday, March 11, 2006

Split vote of en banc Fourth Circuit affirms death sentence in Percy Walton case

A few days ago, the Fourth Circuit sitting en banc affirmed the denial by Judge Wilson of the W.D. Va. of post-conviction relief in the death penalty case of Walton v. Johnson. The vote count was as follows: Judge Shedd wrote the opinion, in which Judge Widener, Judge Wilkinson, Judge Niemeyer, Judge Luttig, Judge Williams, and Judge Duncan joined. Judge Wilkinson wrote a separate concurring opinion. Judge Williams wrote a separate concurring opinion. Chief Judge Wilkins wrote a dissenting opinion, in which Judge Michael, Judge Motz, Judge Traxler, Judge King, and Judge Gregory joined.

Chief Judge Wilkins, in his dissent, observed: "In my view, the evidence in the record presents a substantial question (one yet to be answered by the district court) as to whether Walton understands that his execution will mean his death, i.e., the end of his physical life." His opinion seems targeted in some measure at Judge Williams' concurrence, which is mostly targeted at Chief Judge Wilkins' dissent. She noted in her opinion that of Walton "the district court has found understands that is going to be executed, why he is going to be executed, and that his execution will cause him to die."

Judge Wilkinson noted in his concurring opinion that the task of defining what does "death" mean "is well beyond our competence and authority, and is best left to religious leaders, scientists, philosophers, and the private recesses of individual belief." He concluded that "the district court was in the best position to evaluate Walton’s mental state, and it applied the Powell test in an exceedingly careful and thorough fashion."

The majority opinion begins: "In 1996, Percy Levar Walton murdered three people in Danville, Virginia." As this post points out, Walton testified that after his execution, he would "come back as a better person" and he was going to "get a Burger King."

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