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Death Penalty Abolished by Virginia Legislature

lawmakers gathered
FILE PHOTO: Virginia Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, center, receives a round of applause from fellow Delegates after a speech on racial equality on the floor of the House at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. (Steve Helber/AP Photo)

The General Assembly has approved landmark legislation to abolish the death penalty in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Gov. Ralph Northam may sign the bill within a week. 

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.

Speaking on the House floor earlier this month, Del. Jay Jones (D-Norfolk), who is Black, recalled  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.”

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

Three 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 his support was conditional upon an amendment that would ensure those who are convicted of capital murder would never be eligible for parole. 

Stanley made one last plea to the Senate to make that change. 

“There is still an opportunity within the legislation ... where a judge could sentence someone who's been convicted of these special circumstances to a sentence that is less than life without parole,” he said. “There are many people over here that would vote for this bill, if the punishment for a conviction is life without parole. But instead, this seems to be falling along partisan lines and it should never when we're making this big of a policy decision fall along partisan lines.”

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, in 2017, for killing a police officer in 2006. The officer’s daughter, Rachel Sutphin, said in a recent interview with VPM that she objected to Morva’s execution in part because he was diagnosed with a serious mental illness. 

“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. 

Governor Ralph Northam issued a joint statement with House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw. 

“It is vital that our criminal justice system operates fairly and punishes people equitably. We all know the death penalty doesn’t do that. It is inequitable, ineffective, and inhumane,” Northam wrote.

“Over Virginia’s long history, this commonwealth has executed more people than any other state. And, like many other states, Virginia has come too close to executing an innocent person. It’s time we stop this machinery of death,” the statement reads. “Thanks to the vote of lawmakers in both chambers, Virginia will join 22 other states that have ended use of the death penalty. This is an important step forward in ensuring that our criminal justice system is fair and equitable to all.”

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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