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Virginia Lawmakers Approve Death Penalty Abolition 

Prison
In this Sept. 23, 2010 file photo prison guards stand outside the entrance to the Greensville Correctional Center, where executions are carried out, in Jarratt, Va. The two legislative houses of Virginia have approved a bill to abolish the death penalty. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

The Virginia House and Senate have both approved landmark legislation to abolish the death penalty in the commonwealth. Gov. Ralph Northam said he plans to sign the bill into law once it reaches his desk. 

Before that happens, lawmakers still have to work out a disagreement about whether people sentenced to life in prison instead of death could be eligible for parole.

Two Republicans voted with Democrats in favor of abolition, but the party has been largely unified in opposition. One Republican Senator, Bill Stanley, co-sponsored the bill, but abstained from voting. His support was conditional on a proposal to make people convicted of murder ineligible for parole after their death sentence was commuted.

Democrats couldn’t agree to make that change.

Opponents of the death penalty cite the high cost, the possibility of executing the innocent, and the disproportionate racial impact. Almost half of the people Virginia executes are Black, although Black residents only account for roughly 20% of the state’s population.

Del. Jay Jones (D-Norfolk) spoke to that last concern, remembering a conversation he had with his mother about her efforts to defend a man on death row.

“She said, ‘Jay, I’m trying to keep a man from getting lynched by the state,’” Jones said. “The death penalty is the direct descendant of lynching. It is state sponsored racism. And we have an opportunity to end this today.”

Del. Jason Miyares (R-Virginia Beach) spoke in support of the death penalty. “Today in this commonwealth, we live under laws that are established for the common good,” Miyares said. “But ... the victims, [like] Stacie Reed, can no longer participate in the common good, because she was brutally murdered by a white supremacist.”

Law enforcement groups want to keep the death penalty for anyone who kills a police officer, and many Republican lawmakers say they support the death penalty as a form of justice for victims’ families.

However, many families say the death penalty makes healing more difficult and doesn’t deliver justice at all.

The last person executed in Virginia was William Morva, who was diagnosed with a serious mental illness after he killed a police officer in 2006. The officer’s daughter, Rachel Sutphin, objected to Morva’s execution in an interview last January.

“There are many of us and we have continually spoken out that this is not what we want,
Sutphin said. “However, we do want to honor those who disagree with us. We are not speaking against them, but against this issue that we see as wrong in our society.”

That execution was in 2017. Two men are currently on death row. Both would have their sentences commuted to life in prison if abolition passes.

 

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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