Richmond Virginia State House Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Amadeust, Wikimedia Commons

After over 400 years of conducting the most executions than any other state, Virginia may become the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty. 

The Virginia Senate and the House of Delegates each passed identical bills this week to abolish the death penalty. Virginia would become the 23rd state to abolish capital punishment if either bill advances in the other’s chamber and is signed by the governor.. 

Under current state law, an offender convicted of a Class 1 felony who is at least 18 years of age at the time of the offense and without an intellectual disability faces a sentence of life imprisonment or death. 

The House and Senate bills eliminate death from the list of possible punishments for a Class 1 felony. The bills do not allow the possibility of parole, good conduct allowance or earned sentence credits. Judges are able to suspend part of life sentences, with the exception of the murder of a law enforcement officer. 

Senate Bill 1165, introduced by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, passed the Senate on a 21-17 vote. House Bill 2263, introduced by Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, passed the House Friday on a 57-41 vote. Three Republicans supported the House measure.

Any person previously sentenced to death by July 1 will have their sentence changed to life imprisonment without eligibility for parole, good conduct allowance or earned sentence credits. According to the House bill’s impact statement, there are two Virginia inmates on death row, but no execution date has been set for these inmates as of December. 

In a floor hearing earlier this week, Mullin discussed how the measure would ultimately save money, as the death penalty is a “huge financial burden on the commonwealth.” Virginia spends approximately $3.9 million annually to maintain four capital defender offices, which only handles capital cases, according to the House bill’s fiscal impact statement. The measure will likely eliminate the need for these offices. 

“If we keep the death penalty in place, we are prolonging an expensive, ineffective, and flawed system,” Mullin said. 

Mullin said Virginia has a dark history of extreme racial bias and occasional false convictions within the judicial system. 

Referencing the 1985 case of Earl Washington, Mullin argued the commonwealth “knows the risks of killing an innocent person very well.” Washington, a wrongfully convicted death row inmate, came within nine days of his execution. 

“Perhaps the strongest argument for abolishing the death penalty is that a justice system without the death penalty allows us the possibility of being wrong,” Mullin said. 

In a debate during Friday’s House vote, defenders of the death penalty called attention to the victims of capital cases. Del. Jason S. Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, told his colleagues that “these victims are begging not to be forgotten.” He argued that executing those who commit the “ultimate crimes” is justice, not vengeance. 

“That’s what the death penalty is … it’s not revenge, it’s not eye for an eye, it’s our society, our civilization, holding someone accountable for their actions, allowing our juries to decide about the ultimate punishment,” Miyares said. 

Del. Mark H. Levine, D-Alexandria, a supporter of the bill, concluded the debate by speaking of his own painful experience. Speaking of his sister’s murder, Levine argued that the bill isn’t about him, his sister or the victims, but about the state’s potential to kill innocent people. 

“I’ve seen evil, I’ve looked it in the face,” Levine said. “I know evil exists, there is no dispute about that. But taking an innocent person’s life -- that’s evil, and it would be evil to be done by this General Assembly.” 

Gov. Ralph Northam said in a press release earlier this week that he looks forward to signing the bill into law. 

“The practice is fundamentally inequitable,” Northam said. “It is inhumane. It is ineffective. And we know that in some cases, people on death row have been found innocent.”

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

(9) comments

NIMBY-CJE

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/09/opinion/dna-death-penalty-sedley-alley.html

Considering that the state has executed many innocent people, they refuse to confirm with DNA evidence because of fear for being sued. The death penalty is evil, if you are against abortion you should be against the death penalty, or else you concede the fact that all life isn't sacred, regardless of the evilness of one person.

Soily

Very telling what Democrats prioritize. Like Michael Dukakis from years ago, most white liberals would likely say they wouldn't support the death penalty even if their wife was brutally raped and murdered. Of course they don't really believe that. They just think it is extremely unlikely their wife will be murdered in their elitist neighborhood. It's mostly people of color who are murdered and this legislation will take one more deterrent away. Liberals already target black communities for abortion without restrictions and gun control. These measures will only hurt innocent people.

Iwouldntgiveabean

I prefer leaving heinous criminals in solitary, devoid of any human interaction and emotional contact.

Soily

That might be a deterrent if it was actually carried out. I'm not aware of it ever being carried out more than temporarily. I suspect it would be considered cruel and unusual punishment by a judge.

Dawnygirl67

Let murderers, rapists, serial killers, etc. live, but abortion (aka baby killing) is okay. What kind of sick world do we live in?

Bigfoot

John Allen Muhammad. Paul Powell. Payne brothers of Winslow's Grocery murder of the mom/grandma sitting behind the counter. Just a few cold blooded killers in PWC. So now VA lawmakers are okay to keep this scum alive?

Wake Up & Smell The Coffee!

1 innocent death penalty recipient is entirely too much. Fortunately DNA has significantly decreased this possibility. We will never see 100% accuracy with any court ruling, ever. It’s just an unfortunate side of life.

The point at which a life or death sentence is handed, who is this sentence for? IMHO, it’s for the victim’s family. Nothing brings their loved one back. But allow the family the opportunity (if desired), to make the decision between life in prison or death penalty. To the extent possible, allow the family what they want. The result may be that they find a modicum of peace afterwards. Bottom line, don’t abolish it.

tman

But that decision isn't up to the victim's family, it is up to the courts right now.

There are plenty of criminals that don't deserve to take another breath, but there is no place in modern society for the death penalty. Revenge as a motive can never bring the family peace. Not a problem we will solve on message boards unfortunately, any more than abortion.

Dawnygirl67

tman, I don't necessarily disagree with you. I just think we should try to save the innocent first (babies) and then go from there.

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