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Death Penalty Ban Advances In the Virginia Senate

Building facade
Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News

A proposal to end the death penalty in Virginia is headed to the Senate floor. It has the support of some victim’s family members, who say they want to avoid lengthy trials and the painful rehashing of their loved one’s murders. 

The Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee approved Senate Bill 1165 this week on a 12-4 vote and detailed some of the financial implications to the state.  

The bill, if passed, would commute the sentences of two individuals who are currently on death row to life in prison. 

A fiscal analysis found that eliminating the death penalty would cost about $77,000 because the Virginia Department of Corrections would have to continue housing those two individuals instead of putting them to death. 

But the state could save $4 million annually by eliminating the Capital Defender Service, which represents defendants who are facing the death penalty. 

Senator Scott Surovell, who introduced the bill, said this savings doesn’t take into account the cost the state incurs on legal expenses like trials and expert witness. 

A growing number of Virginians want to see an end to capital punishment, including victim’s families. 

The last person to be executed in Virginia was William Morva in 2017. Morva was convicted of killing Montgomery County Cpl. Eric Sutphin and a hospital security guard in 2006. Sutphin’s daughter, Rachel Sutphin was nine when her father was murdered. Sutphin objected to Morva’s execution because he was diagnosed with a serious mental illness and has been a vocal critic of capital punishment. 

“Although it is difficult to constantly speak of my father’s death, I do believe I have a moral and religious obligation to do so,” Sutphin said. 

 

Sutphin said she’s looking forward to advocating for other criminal justice reforms. 

“But first we have to stop killing and then we can make the prisons better,” she said. 

Linell Patterson is another advocate for abolition. In 2001, her father Terry Smith and her step mother Lucy Smith were murdered by their adoptive son and some of his friends. Four people involved were charged with murder. One is on death row in Pennsylvania.

Patterson was 19 at the time. She said she understands the hurt and desire for punishment. 

“It’s fair if family members want the death penalty,” she said. “That anger burning in you makes a lot of sense. Like so much sense.” 

But Patterson said she doesn’t want to live with the weight of that anger. 

“I want to live a life that is focused on healing and joy. And like, dad was funny, and Lucy had a beautiful smile,” she said. “I want to live that.  In my better moments, I do.”

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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