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Christopher Beck v. Commonwealth of Virginia


CHRISTOPHER BECK v.
COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA


April 18, 1997
Record No. 962431

CHRISTOPHER BECK
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA

William T. Newman, Jr., Judge
Present: All the Justices

OPINION BY JUSTICE LAWRENCE L. KOONTZ, JR.
FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF ARLINGTON COUNTY


In this appeal, we review the capital murder convictions and
the death sentences imposed by the trial court, sitting without a
jury, on Christopher Beck. The principal issues presented are
whether the trial court erred in receiving "victim impact
evidence" from persons other than family members of the
victims and in receiving "recommendations" concerning
the imposition of the death penalty from the victims’ friends and
family members.

I. PROCEEDINGS

Beck was charged with multiple offenses including capital
murder, burglary, rape, robbery, and use of a firearm in the
commission of these offenses. Prior to trial, Beck filed a motion
to suppress the introduction of all statements made by him to the
police and any evidence obtained as a result. After reviewing the
statements, receiving additional evidence, and hearing argument
of counsel, the trial court denied this motion. Beck does not
assign error to this action of the trial court.

Beck also filed a motion challenging the constitutionality of
Virginia’s capital murder statute and the attendant statutes
governing trial and appellate procedures in death penalty cases.
The trial court denied this motion without comment.

At trial, Beck pled guilty to the capital murder of his cousin
Florence Marie Marks during or subsequent to rape or in the
commission of robbery while armed with a deadly weapon, Code
§ 18.2-31(4) and (5), the capital murder of William Miller
in the commission of robbery while armed with a deadly weapon,
Code § 18.2-31(4), the capital murder of David Stuart Kaplan
in the commission of robbery while armed with a deadly weapon,
Code § 18.2-31(4), as well as statutory burglary, rape,
three offenses of robbery, and seven offenses of the use of a
firearm.[1] At the time the pleas were taken, the
Commonwealth, at the trial court’s direction, made a proffer of
the evidence of Beck’s guilt. This proffer referred the trial
court principally to statements made by Beck to the police which
the trial court had reviewed during the suppression hearing. On
the basis of this proffer, the trial court accepted the pleas and
found Beck guilty.

Following the acceptance of Beck’s pleas, the trial court
granted a continuance prior to beginning the sentencing phase of
the trial. During the continuance, the trial court received a
large number of letters from family members and friends of the
victims which contained statements concerning the impact of
Beck’s crimes and "recommendations" concerning the
imposition of the death penalty.

During the sentencing phase, the trial court heard evidence in
aggravation and in mitigation and fixed punishment for each of
the three capital murders at death premised upon findings of both
"vileness" and "future dangerousness." The
trial court sentenced Beck to four life terms plus a total 53
years’ imprisonment for the remaining offenses.

II. EVIDENCE

The critical facts are not in dispute and may be fairly
summarized as follows:

A. Beck’s Statements to Police

Beck told police that several days before the murders he
formulated a plan to kill Miller, Beck’s former employer. On
Monday, June 5, 1995, Beck traveled by bus from his home in
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Washington, D.C., arriving there
at 6 p.m. The following morning Beck went to Arlington to the
house shared by Marks, Miller, and Kaplan. He arrived at the
house at 11 a.m., "walked around the perimeter," and
then broke in through a basement window under the porch.
Wrapping a sledge hammer he found in the basement with a cloth to
"muffle the sound," he used the sledge hammer to batter
a hole in a door to the first floor of the house. Beck then went
to Miller’s apartment and chose a .22 caliber semi-automatic
pistol from several loaded guns Miller kept in the house; he
rejected another larger caliber weapon because its report would
be too loud. After loading a spare magazine for the pistol, Beck
went to the basement and waited for Miller to return home. As
Beck waited he became "nervous," but finally concluded,
"I guess I’ll go through [with] it."

Later that afternoon, Beck heard the sound of someone entering
the basement. Beck raised the pistol to "arm level,"
and, as the door opened, he closed his eyes and fired two shots.
When Beck opened his eyes, he saw Marks on the basement floor.
Beck said, "you stupid bitch, why did you have to come
home?" In an attempt to make it appear that Marks had been
raped and robbed, Beck cut off most of her clothes and stabbed
her in the right buttock. He threw a condom he had found in the
washer onto the floor and, in a further effort to make it appear
that Marks had been sexually assaulted, he kicked her and
penetrated her vagina with a hammer. Beck reasoned that sexual
assault evidence would lead the police to believe that the crime
had been committed by a stranger and not by a family member. Beck
then went back upstairs to the first floor.

About one hour later, Miller returned home. Beck was on the
stairs leading to the second floor and hid behind the bannister.
Miller remained downstairs for a while and then started up the
stairs. Beck shot Miller in the face as he mounted the stairs.
Miller fell down the stairs as Beck continued to shoot him,
firing a total of five rounds at him. Beck put Miller’s body in
Kaplan’s apartment and threw a blanket over the body,
"because I got sick and tired looking" at it.

Later that evening, but while it was still light outside,
Kaplan returned home to find Miller’s body lying in his room,
Beck with a gun in his hand, and blood "all over." As
Kaplan stared at the scene, Beck shot Kaplan in the back of the
head. Beck fired "several times and [Kaplan] just wouldn’t
die." As Kaplan lay on the floor, he talked to Beck, saying,
"hello, I’m awake, hello." Beck fired what he believed
was a full magazine at Kaplan and then stabbed him in the head.
Beck stated that he "just wanted [Kaplan] to stop having the
pain." After he was stabbed, Kaplan appeared to have a
"seizure" and then died.

Beck went back through the house taking several guns and two
bicycles. He also took cash from each of the victims. He took the
keys to Miller’s car, changed his clothes, loaded the car with
the guns and bicycles, and drove to Washington, D.C., to see a
girl. As he left the house, Beck waved to the next door neighbor.

After a parking mishap in the District of Columbia in which
Beck parked the car but neglected to engage the parking brake,
and the car rolled into another vehicle, Beck drove home to
Pennsylvania. Once there he hid the guns and "stashed"
the bicycles with a friend. He "cleaned the car of all
prints[,] wiped it all down," and abandoned it after
covering the license plates.

Beck was initially interviewed by Arlington County Police
officers at his mother’s home in Philadelphia. Beck at first
claimed to have been transporting bicycles from Tennessee at the
time of the murders. When a friend failed to corroborate Beck’s
alibi, Beck admitted to police that he had killed Marks, Miller
and Kaplan. After his arrest, Beck was returned to Arlington,
where he gave a full statement concerning the murders to police.
During his statement to the police, Beck was given a chance to
say something for himself; he said:

That ah I know what is like to kill somebody, its one of the
worst feelings you can live with that I don’t know that it is
pretty painful that is one of those things that you can’t go to
sleep and I’m so sorry that I did, I’m so sorry that I had all
that anger built up, I should had went to a counselor or
something could have prevented it. I don’t know, I’m sorry but I
know this is going to be pretty hard for people to believe what
happened.

In addition to giving that statement, Beck assisted the police
in the recovery of the stolen car, guns, and bicycles.

B. Additional Evidence

Autopsies of the three victims revealed that each had suffered
multiple gunshot wounds to the head which had resulted in rapid,
if not immediate death. Dr. Frances Patricia Field, an assistant
chief medical examiner, testified that Marks had sustained two
gunshot wounds to the head. Dr. Field concluded that either of
these gunshot wounds could have been lethal. In addition, the
autopsy revealed that Marks had sustained multiple bruises on her
body, a stab wound in the right buttock, and "hyperemia or
redness in the left back part of the entrance to the
vagina."

Miller’s autopsy revealed bruises and abrasions of the lower
extremities and several gunshot wounds to the face. Dr. Field
concluded that the bullet which entered the left side of the head
would have caused death "relatively quick[ly] if not
instantaneously."

Kaplan’s autopsy revealed the presence of seven gunshot
wounds. Kaplan had sustained wounds to the left side of the head,
the left and right sides of the face, the left side of the chin,
the top and right side of the nose, and the left upper chest. In
the medical examiner’s opinion, only the bullets which entered
the chest and the head below the ear would have been immediately
or rapidly fatal. Dr. Field was unable to determine the order in
which the wounds had been inflicted.

At the time the plea was taken, in addition to referring the
trial court to Beck’s statements, the Commonwealth made the
proffer that a used condom found in the house was analyzed and
that genetic material of both Marks and Beck was found. This
evidence was in direct conflict with Beck’s statement concerning
the rape of Marks.

At sentencing, the trial court received evidence of Beck’s
prior criminal history. Beck, at the age of 14 years, was charged
with aggravated assault after he pushed his high school teacher,
Joyce Leff, as he left her class. According to Ms. Leff, Beck was
"hostile towards authority, didn’t want to do any class
work." Beck wore "a jacket with swastikas on it"
until a school vice principal asked him not to wear it. When Beck
told Leff that he had guns he "used to target shoot the
neighbor’s house," she became "very afraid" and
re-arranged her classroom so that she was not visible from
outside the classroom. Leff further testified that Beck was in a
special education class and read on a first or second grade
level; she felt he was "emotionally disturbed . . . [v]ery
hostile, full of rage and anger." Beck subsequently was
committed to the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare in 1991 after
an incident in which he threatened to harm his former girlfriend
and her parents. While in the jail segregation unit awaiting the
present trial, Beck substituted disinfectant for mouthwash
belonging to one inmate and struck another inmate. In addition,
Beck wrote a document describing his feelings in which he
incorporated the phrase: "I’m sorry but I love
killing."

Dr. Dewey G. Cornell, a clinical psychologist and professor at
the University of Virginia, diagnosed Beck as learning disabled,
suffering from attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder
(ADHD), and antisocial personality disorder. Dr. Evan Nelson, a
licensed clinical psychologist specializing in forensic
psychology, also concluded that Beck suffers from ADHD and a
learning disability. Dr. Nelson did not conclude that Beck
suffers from antisocial personality disorder, but conceded that
he met all the criteria for such a diagnosis. He opined that
neglect by Beck’s mother was the primary cause of Beck’s
pathology. According to Dr. Nelson, Beck is able to express
regret but lacks the capacity to experience remorse.

C. Victim Impact Evidence

Prior to sentencing, Beck’s attorney asked the trial court not
to consider "victim impact" type evidence submitted by
persons other than members of the victims’ families. The trial
court observed that the decision in Payne v. Tennessee,
501 U.S. 808 (1991), permitted it to "go either way."
The trial court indicated that it would be necessary to review
the materials to make a determination of their admissibility, and
that the court would make its decision based upon the closeness
of the relationship between the victim and the witness. Beck
renewed the objection to non-family victim impact evidence at the
outset of the sentencing hearing, but did not raise express
objections to any specific evidence or testimony.

Among the documents received by the trial court were letters
from family members, co-workers, and friends of the victims, and
numerous letters sent to Kaplan’s parents. Included with these
were news accounts and essays written by co-workers of Kaplan,
who was a journalist. Some of the letters included the authors’
views favoring imposition of a death sentence or life
imprisonment.

III. ISSUES WAIVED

Beck assigns error to the trial court’s denial of his motion
to declare Virginia’s death penalty statute unconstitutional and
to prohibit imposition of the death penalty on the ground that
Virginia’s procedures for trial and appellate consideration of
the death sentence are also unconstitutional and violate the
Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual
punishment and the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of due process.
These assignments of error seek to raise issues that Beck waived
by the entry of his guilty pleas and, thus, they are not
cognizable in this appeal. See Murphy v. Commonwealth,
246 Va. 136, 141, 431 S.E.2d 48, 51, cert.denied, 510 U.S.
928 (1993); Savino v. Commonwealth, 239 Va. 534, 539, 391
S.E.2d 276, 278-79, cert. denied, 498 U.S. 882 (1990); Stout
v. Commonwealth
, 237 Va. 126, 131?32, 376 S.E.2d 288, 291, cert.
denied
, 492 U.S. 925 (1989).

IV. VICTIM IMPACT EVIDENCE

Beck asserts that it was improper for the trial court to
receive victim impact evidence from persons not related to the
victims. Beck’s initial position is that such evidence is
constitutionally barred because it exceeds the scope of victim
impact testimony permitted by the United States Supreme Court’s
decision in Payne. Beck further asserts that even if not
constitutionally barred, admission of such evidence is not
permitted under Virginia’s criminal procedure code. We will
consider each of these assertions in turn.

A. Constitutional Admissibility

We have previously decided that "victim impact testimony
is relevant to punishment in a capital murder prosecution in
Virginia." Weeks v. Commonwealth, 248 Va. 460, 476,
450 S.E.2d 379, 389-90 (1994), cert. denied, 516 U.S. ___,
116 S.Ct. 100 (1995). There, we relied on the statement in Payne
that "[a] State may legitimately conclude that evidence
about the victim and about the impact of the murder on the
victim’s family is relevant to the . . . decision as to
whether or not the death penalty shall be imposed." 501 U.S.
at 827.

Citing the foregoing language in Payne, Beck maintains
that Payne limits the source of victim impact evidence to
family members. We disagree. No such limitation is either express
or implied by this language. To the contrary, the Court was
describing the nature, not the source, of victim impact evidence.
Indeed, it has been expressly recognized that the impact of the
loss of the victim of a murder may extend beyond the victim’s
family members to the victim’s friends and community. Id.
at 830 (O’Connor, J., concurring). Human experience and common
knowledge support this recognition of the unique worth of the
individual. Thus, there is no merit to Beck’s assertion that
victim impact evidence is constitutionally limited to that
received from the victim’s family members.

We hold that the admissibility of victim impact evidence
during the sentencing phase of a capital murder trial is limited
only by the relevance of such evidence to show the impact of the
defendant’s actions. While statements from the immediate family
members of the deceased will normally be the best source of such
evidence, the Eighth Amendment does not restrict the trial court
from looking to statements of others well acquainted with the
victim. Such evidence provides the sentencing authority with an
understanding of the individualized circumstances present in the
life of the victim and the specific harm caused by the crime in
question. Id. at 825. So long as its prejudicial effect
does not outweigh its probative value, such evidence is
beneficial to the determination of an individualized sentence as
is required by the Eighth Amendment. Id.; see also
Wesley v. State, 916 P.2d 793, 804 (Nev. 1996)(victim
impact evidence from neighbors, co?workers and others did not
violate defendant’s Eighth Amendment rights).

B. Statutory Admissibility

Beck asserts that even if constitutionally permissible, the
criminal procedure provisions within Title 19.2 of the Virginia
Code limit victim impact evidence in a capital murder case to
that received from the victim’s family members. In support of
this position, Beck relies upon Code §§ 19.2?11.01,
19.2-264.5 and 19.2-299.1. Beck asserts that, when read in
concert, these three statutes provide only for gathering and
presentation of evidence from those persons designated as
"victims" under the Crime Victim and Witness Rights Act
(the Act). Code 19.2?11.01 to -11.4. We disagree.

Pertinent to our resolution of this issue, the code
prescribes:

19.2?11.01. Crime victim and witness rights.

A. In recognition of the Commonwealth’s concern for the
victims and witnesses of crime, it is the purpose of this
chapter to ensure that the full impact of crime is brought to
the attention of the courts of the Commonwealth;

. . . .

4. Victim input.

a. Victims shall be given the opportunity, pursuant to
19.2?299.1, to prepare a written victim impact statement
prior to sentencing of a defendant and may provide
information to any individual or agency charged with
investigating the social history of a person or preparing a
victim impact statement under the provisions of 16.1?273 and
53.1?155 or any other applicable law.

. . . .

B. For purposes of this chapter, "victim"
means. . . a spouse, parent or legal guardian of
such a person who . . . was the victim of a
homicide.

19.2?264.5. Post?sentence reports.

When the punishment of any person has been fixed at death,
the court shall, before imposing sentence, direct a probation
officer of the court to thoroughly investigate the history of
the defendant and any and all other relevant facts, to the
end that the court may be fully advised as to whether the
sentence of death is appropriate and just. Reports shall be
made, presented and filed as provided in 19.2?299 except
that, notwithstanding any other provision of law, such
reports shall in all cases contain a Victim Impact Statement.
Such statement shall contain the same information and be
prepared in the same manner as Victim Impact Statements
prepared pursuant to 19.2?299.1. After consideration of the
report, and upon good cause shown, the court may set aside
the sentence of death and impose a sentence of imprisonment
for life.

19.2?299.1. When Victim Impact Statement required;
contents; uses.

The presentence report prepared pursuant to 19.2?299
shall, with the consent of the victim, as defined in
19.2?11.01, in all cases involving offenses other than
capital murder, include a Victim Impact Statement. Victim
Impact Statements in all cases involving capital murder shall
be prepared and submitted in accordance with the provisions
of 19.2?264.5.

A Victim Impact Statement shall be kept confidential and
shall be sealed upon entry of the sentencing order. If
prepared by someone other than the victim, it shall
. . . provide such other information as the court
may require related to the impact of the offense upon the
victim.

Beck asserts that by limiting the definition of
"victim" in the Act to the "spouse, parent or
legal guardian" of the deceased, the legislature implicitly
intended to limit the admissibility of victim impact evidence to
that provided by such persons for the reports described in Code
19.2-264.5 and 19.2?299.1. There is no merit to this assertion.

While the Act provides for the right of victims, as defined
therein, to prepare a written impact statement, nothing within
the Act limits the nature of victim impact evidence to such
statements alone. Similarly, the reference to the Act in Code
19.2-299.1 merely defines the person or persons whose consent the
Commonwealth must obtain in order to include the victim impact
statement in the sentencing report. Moreover, by its express
terms Code 19.2?299.1 exempts the Commonwealth from having to
obtain such consent in capital murder trials, and the preparation
of a victim impact report in a capital murder trial, though done
in the same manner as other such reports under Code 19.2?299.1,
is mandated by Code 19.2?264.5.

The clear import of the Act is to preserve the right of
victims of crimes to have the impact of those crimes upon their
lives considered as part of the sentencing process, if that is
their wish, and to protect their privacy thereafter. The
requirement in Code 19.2-299.1 of obtaining victim consent to
include the statement of the victim in the pre-sentence report is
further recognition of the right of victims to maintain their
privacy if they so desire. By exempting the Commonwealth from
having to seek such consent when presenting victim impact
evidence during capital murder trials, the legislature has
recognized expressly that the impact of such crimes is of such
magnitude as to require the consideration of victim impact
evidence even at the risk of intruding upon the sensibilities of
those closest to the victim.

Nothing in Code 19.2-299.1 expressly or implicitly limits the
sources on which the Commonwealth may draw in its preparation of
the victim impact portion of the presentence report. Rather, the
report is to contain whatever information the trial court
"may require related to the impact of the offense upon the
victim."

Accordingly, we hold that the statutes do not limit evidence
of victim impact to that received from the victim’s family
members. Rather, the circumstances of the individual case will
dictate what evidence will be necessary and relevant, and from
what sources it may be drawn. In a capital murder trial, as in
any other criminal proceeding, the determination of the
admissibility of relevant evidence is within the sound discretion
of the trial court subject to the test of abuse of that
discretion. See Coe v. Commonwealth, 231 Va. 83,
87, 340 S.E.2d 820, 823 (1986); Stamper v. Commonwealth,
220 Va. 260, 269-70, 257 S.E.2d 808, 815-16 (1979), cert.
denied
, 445 U.S. 972 (1980).

C. Admissibility and Consideration of Evidence Received

We now turn to the victim impact evidence actually received by
the trial court during the sentencing phase of Beck’s trial. In
doing so, we stress that this was a trial without a jury. In
responding to Beck’s generalized objections to its receiving
victim impact evidence, the trial court stated that it would
assess each statement to determine whether the relationship of
the declarant to the victims was sufficient to warrant the trial
court’s consideration, limiting that consideration to the
testimony of family members and close friends of the victims. The
trial court further stated that it was "mindful of the types
of statements that would be inappropriate for its
consideration."

Although provided with the opportunity to review the victim
impact evidence prior to sentencing, Beck did not raise any
particularized objection to the admission of any statement or
testimony. Accordingly, we need only consider whether the trial
court erred in considering the evidence received.

As noted above, the determination of admissibility of relevant
evidence is within the sound discretion of the trial court. In
order to exercise that discretion, the trial court must weigh the
relevance and probative value of the evidence against its
potential undue prejudice to the defendant. "A judge, unlike
a juror, is uniquely suited by training, experience and judicial
discipline to disregard potentially prejudicial comments and to
separate, during the mental process of adjudication, the
admissible from the inadmissible, even though he has heard
both." Eckhart v. Commonwealth, 222 Va. 213, 216, 279
S.E.2d 155, 157 (1981); see also Williams v.
Commonwealth
, 234 Va. 168, 182, 360 S.E.2d 361, 369 (1987), cert.
denied
, 484 U.S. 1020 (1988). Here, the trial court’s
statements clearly establish its awareness of this
responsibility.

In reviewing an exercise of discretion, we do not substitute
our judgment for that of the trial court. Rather, we consider
only whether the record fairly supports the trial court’s action.
We find that none of the declarants of the victim impact evidence
received by the trial court was so far removed from the victims
as to have nothing of value to impart to the court about the
impact of these crimes. Thus, the determination that this
evidence was relevant and probative of the issue under
consideration was clearly within the trial court’s discretion.
Similarly, our review of the content of the victim impact
evidence reveals no statement concerning the impact of the crimes
so inherently prejudicial that its admission would constitute an
abuse of discretion. Accordingly, to whatever extent that the
trial court chose to consider the evidence it received, we cannot
say that doing so constituted an abuse of its discretion.

D. Evidence of "Recommendations" for Imposition
of Death Penalty

Beck further asserts that the trial court erred in considering
statements contained within the victim impact evidence which
"recommended" the imposition of the death penalty. The
mere fact that the trial court received statements from family
and friends of the victims in which the imposition of the death
penalty was urged as an appropriate sentence does not establish
that the trial court relied upon those statements in reaching its
judgment. See Smith v. Commonwealth, 239 Va. 243,
268, 389 S.E.2d 871, 885, cert. denied, 498 U.S.
881 (1990). Moreover, the trial judge, by virtue of his training
and experience, is presumed to have separated the permissible
victim impact evidence from any potentially prejudicial
statements, if any, concerning sentencing and to have considered
only the former.[2] The record amply supports the conclusion that
this was done in this case and that the trial court’s judgment
was not made in an arbitrary manner.

V. SENTENCE REVIEW

Beck’s remaining assignments of error challenge the imposition
of the death sentences on the ground that the evidence failed to
establish the predicate determinations of future dangerousness
and vileness and that the sentences were excessive and were
imposed under undue influence of passion.

A. Sufficiency of the Evidence to Support Predicate
Determination

The record contains sufficient evidence to support the trial
court’s finding of future dangerousness. Beck attempts to
minimize the evidence of his prior criminal history and
subsequent violent acts while incarcerated. This evidence,
however, must be considered not in isolation, but in the context
of the present offenses. The circumstances surrounding the
commission of the capital murder of Miller were sufficient to
establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Beck would commit future
criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing
threat to society. See Code § 19.2?264.4(C); Murphy,
246 Va. at 144, 431 S.E.2d at 53. By his own admission, Beck
planned and executed that murder, in the process killing his
cousin Marks, and then remaining at the crime scene to kill
Kaplan. These facts, along with the evidence of Beck’s prior and
subsequent actions, provided sufficient evidence from which the
trial court could conclude that Beck placed no value on human
life and would kill others whenever it suited him to do so. See
Goins v. Commonwealth, 251 Va. 442, 468, 470 S.E.2d 114,
131, cert. denied, 519 U.S. ___, 117 S.Ct. 222 (1996).

Beck’s sole contention with respect to the determination of
vileness is that the term is unconstitutionally vague. We have
already addressed and rejected this argument in Breard v.
Commonwealth
, 248 Va. 68, 74, 445 S.E.2d 670, 675, cert.
denied, 513 U.S. 971 (1994). A finding of
"vileness" must be based on conduct which is
"outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman in that
it involved torture, depravity of mind or an aggravated battery
to the victim." Code § 19.2?264.2. Proof of any one of
these three components will support a finding of vileness. Id.;
Mueller v. Commonwealth, 244 Va. 386, 411, 422 S.E.2d 380,
395 (1992), cert. denied, 507 U.S. 1043 (1993). We hold
that the evidence sufficiently established Beck’s depravity of
mind to warrant a finding of vileness.

B. Proportionality Review

Code § 17?110.1(C) requires us to review the death
sentences imposed on Beck to determine whether (1) they were
imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice, or any other
arbitrary factor; or (2) they are excessive or disproportionate
to the penalty imposed in similar cases, considering both the
crimes and the defendant. We will combine the review required by
statute with the identical issues raised by Beck in his appeal.

In support of his contention that the death sentences were
imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice, or other
arbitrary factor, Beck asserts that the trial court failed to
give consideration to mitigating evidence. This argument is
merely conclusory and we find nothing in the record to support
it. To the contrary, the record contains the trial judge’s
statement that he "carefully considered the aggravating and
the mitigating circumstances found to exist in this case,"
and the judgment orders state that the trial court took into
consideration "all of the evidence in the case." See
Boggs v. Commonwealth, 229 Va. 501, 522, 331 S.E.2d 407,
422 (1985), cert. denied, 475 U.S. 1031 (1986).
Additionally, our independent review of the trial record fails to
disclose that the sentences of death were imposed under the
influence of any of the statutory factors.

In conducting our proportionality review, we must determine
"whether other sentencing bodies in this jurisdiction
generally impose the supreme penalty for comparable or similar
crimes, considering both the crime and the defendant." Jenkins
v. Commonwealth
, 244 Va. 445, 461, 423 S.E.2d 360, 371
(1992), cert. denied, 507 U.S. 1036 (1993); see
also Code § 17?110.1(C)(2). We have examined the
records of all capital murder cases reviewed by this Court, under
Code § 17?110.1(E), including those cases in which a life
sentence was imposed. We have given particular attention to those
cases in which the death penalty was based on both the
"future dangerousness" and the "vileness"
predicates.

Based on this review, we conclude that Beck’s death sentences
are not excessive or disproportionate to penalties generally
imposed by other sentencing bodies in the Commonwealth for
comparable crimes. See, e.g., Jenkins, supra;
Briley v. Commonwealth, 221 Va. 563, 273 S.E.2d 57 (1980);
Stamper, supra.

VI. CONCLUSION

We find no reversible error in the judgments of the trial
court. Having reviewed Beck’s death sentences pursuant to Code
§ 17?110.1, we decline to commute the sentences of death.
Accordingly, we will affirm the trial court’s judgments.

Affirmed.

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Beck
also pled guilty to the capital murder of the three victims as
part of a single act or transaction, Code § 18.2?31(7);
that capital multiple murder charge was subsequently nolle
prossed and Beck’s plea withdrawn. See Clagett
v. Commonwealth
, 252 Va. 79, 96, 472 S.E.2d 263, 273 (1996).

[2] We
do not mean to suggest that we agree with Beck’s characterization
of the lay witnesses’ statements with regard to the imposition of
the death sentence in this case as "recommendations" to
the trial court, or that the trial court received them as such.
Rather, we believe these statements were received by the trial
court as expressions of the depth of the witnesses’ feelings
concerning the impact of these crimes.

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