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2018-1-24

Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, Civil Rights Giant, Dies

By Thomas Jett, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, a civil rights icon who worked closely with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., died Tuesday morning at an assisted-living facility in Chester, south of Richmond.

Numerous public officials, including Virginia’s two U.S. senators, expressed their condolences over the death of Wyatt, whoraised heaven as pastor at Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg and hell as a civil rights activist.

“The Commonwealth and our country are a better place because of his leadership in the struggle for civil rights,” Sen. Mark Warner said. Sen. Tim Kaine called Wyatt “a man I’ve known and admired for many years.”

Wyatt’s death at age 88 was announced by the Rev. Al Sharpton, who described him as “atrue giant and irreplaceable leader.”

Added the Rev. Jesse Jackson: “One of the tallest trees of the civil rights movement has fallen.”

Walker was born to the Rev. John Wise and Maude Pinn Walker, both graduates of Virginia Union University, on Aug. 16, 1929, in Brockton, Massachusetts. He grew up in a home full of books but struggling with poverty during the Great Depression.

In 1950, Walker followed his parents’ path to Virginia Union University, receiving Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1953. Soon after, he moved to Petersburg.

During his seven-year tenure at Gillfield Baptist, Walker vitalized the struggle for civil rights in that city south of Richmond. He served as president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded the Petersburg Improvement Association and sued the city in federal court for access to the public but segregated swimming pool in Lee Park. The city responded by temporarily closing the pool rather than integrate it.

For his efforts, Walker was arrested 17 times. He had many notable achievements, including the desegregation of lunch counters at restaurants at the bus terminal.

In 1958, Walker co-founded the Congress of Racial Equality and served as its state director.

In 1960, Walker moved to Alabama at King’s behest. Serving as the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1960 to 1964, he improved the organization’s fundraising, structure, strategy and publicity.

Discussing his leadership in the SCLC, Walker once described himself as someone “who didn’t care about being loved to get it done – I didn’t give a damn about whether people liked me, but I knew I could do the job.’’

After resigning from the SCLC in 1964, Walker became vice president and then president of the Negro Heritage Library, a publishing venture aimed at increasing black history and literature in public school curriculums. He also became pastor of Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem.

King spoke to Walker’s congregation in 1968, describing him as ‘‘a tall man – tall in stature, tall in courage.’’

At the church in Harlem, Walker hosted numerous African leaders active in opposing apartheid and colonization of the continent, including Nelson Mandela.

Walker was no stranger to danger. He braved constant threats campaigning for civil rights in the Jim Crow south and continued daring death in Harlem, campaigning and preaching against the drug trade. The mobster Frank Lucas once allegedly put a bounty on Wyatt’s head.

After suffering a stroke in 2004, Walker left Canaan Baptist and moved back to Virginia to live near relatives. Walker is survived by his wife of 68 years, Theresa Edwards Walker; his daughter, Patrice Powell; three sons – Robert, Earl, and Wyatt Jr.; his sister, Mary Holley; and two granddaughters.

Workers’ Compensation Bills Die in Subcommittee

By Caitlin Barbieri, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Legislation aimed at protecting and improving employees’ worker compensation rights were struck down Tuesday by a House subcommittee.

Freshman Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, proposed three bills in an effort to reform the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act after he was inspired by his own experience filing a claim. All three bills were passed by indefinitely by a subcommittee of the House Commerce and Labor Committee, effectively killing them for the session.

One of the bills, HB 460, would have prevented employers from firing someone based on the belief that the employee had filed or was planning to file a claim for workers compensation. Currently, Virginia law only protects employees from being fired solely because they have made or are planning to make a claim. However, this bill would have protected employees from being fired for any reason that was motivated by the knowledge or belief that the employee was planning to file a claim.

Ryan Dunn from the Virginia Chamber of Commerce said the bill was too general.

“This is really a golden ticket to allow somebody, even after they are fired for due cause or decide to quit, (that) they can at any point come back and say that this was related to their workers’ comp claim that they put in in 1985,” Dunn said.

The second measure, HB 461, known as the timely notice bill, would have required employers to respond to a workers’ compensation claim within 10 days of the initial claim and explain why it was denied. The bill would cut employers’ response time in half; Joe Leahy of the Independent Insurance Agents of Virginia said that is not enough time to investigate a claim.

Carter’s third bill, HB 462, would have ensured that Virginia employees injured while working outside the state could still file for compensation from their employer in Virginia, increasing their employers’ liability.

Again this bill was met with opposition. Subcommittee Chairman Gregory Habeeb, R-Salem, agreed with Carter that “our system is not super-claimant friendly,” but disagreed with the proposed solution.  

“I believe that there are some changes that Virginia could make to the benefit of the claimants that would be more than reasonable,” he said. “I just don’t think this is one of them.”

Carter was not available for comment after the subcommittee meeting.

Stricter Seat-Belt Laws Shelved for 2018 Session

By Irena Schunn, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia legislators have rejected all bills expanding seat-belt requirements in privately owned vehicles this session. The last two bills, requiring back-seat passengers to wear seat belts, were dismissed by a House subcommittee vote Tuesday.

“With the demise of this year’s major seat-belt bills, it is clear that Virginia lawmakers don’t have an appetite for advancing the single most effective measure to reduce crash-related deaths and injuries,” said Kurt Erickson, the president and CEO of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program and an advocate for expanding seat belt requirements in Virginia.

Expanding seat belt laws to include rear-seat passengers could save several lives each year. In 2017, at least 94 Virginia lives might have been saved if vehicle occupants had been buckled up, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Back-seat passengers in general are three times more likely to die when unfastened during a collision, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Drivers under the influence and teens are some of the least likely to wear seatbelts. In 2013, 68 percent of drivers who had been drinking and died in a car accident were not wearing a seat belt, according to a report from the National Transportation Safety Board. In the same year, 49 percent of teens under the influence involved in a fatal crash were unrestrained. Even without alcohol, teens are particularly careless when it comes to wearing seat belts. In 2015, more than half of all teens who died in a crash were unbuckled during the collision, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During Tuesday’s subcommittee meeting, questions were raised over whether the driver would be responsible for the ticket if a rear-seat passenger remained unbuckled. As services like Uber and Lyft gain in popularity, the answer is especially pertinent for ride-sharing drivers.  Neither HB 1272 sponsored by Del. Vivian Watts, D-Annandale, nor HB 9 sponsored by Del. Paul Krizek, D-Alexandria, guarantees any protection for taxi drivers or ride-sharing services.

Last week, a Senate committee rejected a similar bill that additionally would have made failing to wear a seat belt a primary offense. Current Virginia law only requires front-seat passengers to wear seat belts, and dictates that a seat-belt violation can be ticketed only when the driver is pulled over for a separate traffic violation. Currently, the penalty for not wearing a seat belt is a $25 fine.

Delegates Tout Bills to Improve Prison Workers’ Jobs

By Yasmine Jumaa and Brandon Celentano,Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Correctional officers from across Virginia watched Tuesday as a state lawmaker urged support for legislation aimed at reducing turnover among prison guards and making it easier for them to get workers’ compensation.

“I think currently we have a tremendous injustice going on,” said Del. John Bell, D-Loudoun. “Out of the 14 [categories of] peace officers in Virginia, the only peace officer who does not get the presumption of disability is our correctional officer.”

Bell is sponsoring House Bill 107, which would add correctional officers to the list of public safety employees entitled to receive workers’ compensation under the presumption that hypertension, heart disease and other ailments may stem from their stressful jobs. Bell said some correctional officers develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The stress levels on officers is very high, which could lead to a variety of different heart diseases over prolonged periods of time,” Bell said. “It’s a tough and hazardous job where officers have been measured with PTSD that far exceeds combat veterans.”

Bell has also introduced HB 108, which would require the Virginia Department of Corrections to conduct an exit survey of correctional officers who quit. The survey would ask them about work conditions and other concerns that may contribute to high turnover.

Del. Roslyn Tyler, D-Sussex, said low salaries may be a factor.

“You have to work two, three jobs sometimes to address your needs and your family’s because your salaries aren’t up to par to make a living,” said Tyler, who is co-sponsoring the two bills. “That is just totally unreasonable.”

According to the Department of Corrections, 1,164 DOC employees, including 698 correctional officers, have salaries so low that they may be eligible for food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

A 2017 study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission said correctional officers’ difficult jobs and low salaries may hurt attracting and retaining employees. Virginia prison guards had a 17 percent turnover rate over the past two years, and 16 percent of the positions have been vacant, the study said.

HB 107 has been assigned to a subcommittee of the House Commerce and Labor Committee. On Tuesday, the subcommittee voted 4-3 to recommend approval of the bill.

HB 108 has been assigned to a subcommittee of the House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety.

While Governor Decries Gun Violence, Senate OKs Guns in Church

By DeForrest Ballou, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Lamenting the fact that more than 900 Virginians were killed by guns last year, Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday that the state should do more to restrict the proliferation of firearms.

“We do not need these weapons on our streets and in our society,” Northam told a multi-faith congregation at St. Paul’s Church.

The governor spoke at an event organized by the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. Just hours later, however, the Senate passed a bill allowing people to bring guns and knives to churches and other places of worship.

Split along party lines, senators voted 21-18 in favor of SB 372, sponsored by Republican Sen. Ben Chafin of Russell County.

Currently, state law provides that “If any person carry any gun, pistol, bowie knife, dagger or other dangerous weapon, without good and sufficient reason, to a place of worship while a meeting for religious purposes is being held at such place he shall be guilty of a Class 4 misdemeanor.”

SB 372 would repeal that prohibition against bringing weapons to a house of worship. Supporters of the bill say congregants may need weapons to defend themselves from an attack. They point to incidents such as the mass shooting at a Baptist church at Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Nov. 5, when 26 people were killed by a gunman.

Officials of the Virginia Interfaith Center issued a news press release saying they are “absolutely opposed” to the bill.

Northam did not specifically address SB 372 in his remarks at St. Paul’s, where the center was holding its “Day for All People,” an occasion for residents from across Virginia to come to Richmond and meet with legislators.

Rather, the Democratic governor discussed his concerns about gun violence. He recalled the shooting in Las Vegas, where 58 people were murdered by a gunman during a country music festival on Oct. 1. In less than 50 hours after the shooting, 58 more Americans would die from gun violence, Northam said.

“It took 49 hours – 58 more Americans lost their lives, but you never heard about them, did you? Nor did I,” Northam said. “When are we, as a society, going to stand up and say enough is enough?”

After graduating from Virginia Military Institute, Northam attended Eastern Virginia Medical School. Afterward, he served eight years in the Army as a doctor. Northam has seen the effects of firearms firsthand.

Northam began practicing pediatric neurology after the Army. As a children’s neurologist, he has treated young victims of gunshot wounds.

Northam said he supports the Second Amendment but is willing to think outside the box. “We have ‘smart gun’ technology; this is 2018,” the governor said. “So I will do everything I can to address that issue.”

In an interview, Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, questioned Northam’s statistics on gun deaths in 2017. He said the numbers include tragedies such as suicides.

Van Cleave said he would support “smart guns” – weapons that fire only if held by an authorized user – if the technology were 100 percent effective. However, he said, it currently is not reliable. Someone who is bleeding or wearing gloves may not be able to fire a “smart gun” in self-defense, Van Cleave said.

Businesses May Get Tax Credits to Train High School Students

By Deanna Davison, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Juniors and seniors in Richmond City Public Schools would receive paid apprenticeships and training with local businesses, and participating employers would get tax credits from the state, under legislation filed by a bipartisan pair of lawmakers.

Republican Sen. Glen Sturtevant and Democratic Del. Jeffrey Bourne, who both represent the city in the General Assembly, are seeking to establish a pilot program for the 2018-19 or 2019-20 academic year.

Under the program, up to 25 Richmond students would receive “competitive compensation” while being trained in high-demand fields.

Sturtevant and Bourne say it is important to help students who do not pursue traditional college degrees prepare for the workforce.

“This pilot program will provide a great opportunity for bright and hardworking students to get hands-on experience,” Sturtevant said.

Participating local businesses would receive a $2,500 tax credit per student per semester. Student compensation would equal “no less than the value” of that credit. The total tax credits awarded by the state could not exceed $125,000 a year under the legislation.

Sturtevant and Bourne previously served together on the Richmond School Board for four years.

The lawmakers have submitted companion bills to create the apprenticeship program. Sturtevant has introduced SB 937 in the Senate; Bourne is carrying HB 1575 in the House. Both measures are awaiting committee hearings.

‘Beltway Sniper’ Lee Boyd Malvo Seeks Re-sentencing

By Logan Bogert, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A three-judge federal appeals court panel heard arguments Tuesday on whether Lee Boyd Malvo, who was convicted of murder in the Beltway sniper attacks in 2002, is entitled to a new sentencing under a U.S. Supreme Court decision that made life without parole unconstitutional for juveniles.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges listened to arguments from Malvo’s lawyer, Craig Cooley, and Virginia’s deputy solicitor general, Matthew McGuire.

“There are real serious considerations in re-sentencing dangerous criminals – which no one can argue Mr. Malvo isn’t,” McGuire said in court.

Malvo was 17 when he and John Allen Muhammad, then 41, killed 10 people in Virginia, Maryland and Washington during September and October of 2002.

Muhammad was sentenced to death and executed in Virginia in 2009. Malvo was given four life terms and is an inmate at Red Onion State Prison in Wise County.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that a juvenile could not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, except in the rarest of cases. Even then, a sentencing judge must make an individualized and focused evaluation before sentencing, the high court said.

Last year, citing the Miller decision, U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson of Norfolk ordered a new sentencing for Malvo, now 32.

The state of Virginia appealed Jackson’s ruling. As a result, lawyers for both sides presented arguments to 4th Circuit Judges Paul Niemeyer, Robert King and Albert Diaz.

Cooley argued that in Malvo’s case, when given the option of life without parole or death, the jury voted unanimously to sentence him to life without parole – the lowest sentencing option at that time.

“It is possible, given the option, that they would have gone lower than life without parole,” Cooley told the court.

McGuire presented his counterargument.

“Lee Boyd Malvo is a serial murderer,” one of his documents states. “Lee Boyd Malvo and John Muhammad terrorized people living along the I-95 corridor between Virginia and Maryland for nearly a month in the fall of 2002, randomly killing 10 innocent people going about their daily activities and wounding numerous others, including a child.”

The appeals panel did not indicate when it might rule.

Malvo has been convicted and given life sentences in Maryland as well. Last year, a judge ruled that he will not receive a new sentencing hearing there.

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