Virginia’s Democratic-controlled General Assembly on Monday approved a final bill that would ban the death penalty and sent the legislation to Gov. Ralph Northam, putting the commonwealth on the verge of becoming the first Southern state to prohibit executions.
Mr. Northam has said he would sign the bill into law, which would make Virginia the 23rd state to abolish capital punishment.
Democratic leaders, including the governor, were united in backing the death penalty ban as a marquee item of a larger criminal justice reform agenda that includes rolling back mandatory minimum sentences, legalizing marijuana and automatically expunging records for certain crimes.
“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,” Mr. Northam, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw said in a joint statement.
“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 three Democrats said.
The legislation would replace executions with a maximum punishment of life in prison without the possibility of parole, a sentence that could be amended by a judge.
It also would commute to life in prison without parole the death sentences of the only two men on Virginia’s death row for capital murder convictions, Anthony Juniper and Thomas Porter.
Democrats argued that the death penalty unfairly affects communities of color, the mentally ill and the poor. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, people of color have accounted for 43% of all executions in Virginia since 1976 and 55% of those currently on death row across the country.
Republicans argued that some crimes are too heinous and that execution is a necessary means to deliver justice for victims and their families.
During the debate on the House floor Monday, Republican Delegate Rob Bell described such killings in gruesome detail and said death-row inmates Porter and Juniper would be watching the vote from prison with special interest.
“We have five dead Virginians that this bill will make sure that their killers will not receive justice,” Mr. Bell said.
House Republicans hammered that point on social media, highlighting that the Democratic leaders did not mention victims in their statement and accusing them of wanting to “stand with cold-blooded killers.”
The House and the Senate on Monday passed separate but identical, bills to end capital punishment. The Senate passed the legislation on a 22-16 vote, with Republican Sen. Jill Vogel siding with the Democrats. The House passed the bill on a 57-43 vote, with Republican Delegates Jeff Campbell and Carrie Coyner joining the Democrats.
A right-leaning advocacy group, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, celebrated the vote and cheered Republicans who voted with Democrats.
“Republicans are turning against the death penalty due to the risk of executing someone who is innocent, the death penalty’s high costs, as well as due to their pro-life beliefs,” Hannah Cox, senior national manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said in a statement.
Virginia has one of the largest records of executions in the country’s history, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Nearly 1,400 people have been sentenced to death in the area since Colonial times.
Since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, Virginia has executed 113 inmates, second only to Texas’ 570.
The last person to be executed in Virginia was William Morva in 2017, via lethal injection. He was convicted of fatally shooting Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office Cpl. Eric Sutphin.
The slain officer’s daughter, Rachel Sutphin, became an advocate against the death penalty. In 2019, Ms. Sutphin was one of 13 family members of murder victims who sent a letter to the General Assembly asking lawmakers to abolish the death penalty.
She also testified in a Virginia Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last month, urging lawmakers to pass the legislation.
“I believe the death penalty is an ineffective and outdated measure that brings no solace to family members,” Ms. Sutphin said. “The state would better spend their time and their money providing resources for my family versus killing another person.”
On the other side, M. Wayne Huggins, executive director of the Virginia State Police Association, ardently objected to the bill at the same hearing, emphasizing his concern about certain convicts being released.
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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