The Virginia General Assembly passed a death penalty repeal on Monday. Governor Ralph Northam is expected to sign the bills, which would make Virginia the first state in the South to ban capital punishment. Advocates have argued that the death penalty is vulnerable to wrongful conviction, is expensive, cruel, and applied unfairly, but opponents say some of the most heinous crimes require a death penalty to make sure the criminal doesn’t get free. During the 2021 session, House Republicans have emphasized the names of victims of particularly serious crimes, who they say are being ignored by Democrats.
The Governor called for an end to the death penalty in his State of the Commonwealth speech, where he said, “But when we all agree that a crime deserves the strongest punishment we can give, it’s still vital to make sure our criminal justice system operates fairly and punishes people equitably. We know the death penalty doesn’t do that. But make no mistake—if you commit the most heinous crimes, you should spend the rest of your days in prison.”
The bills passed along mostly partisan lines on Monday; HB 2263, sponsored by Delegate Mike Mullin (D-Newport News) passed the Senate 22 to 16. Senator Jill Vogel (R-Fauquier) voted with Democrats to approve the bill, while Senator Bill Stanley (R-Franklin) did not vote. SB 1165 passed the House 57 to 43, with Delegates Jeff Campbell (R-Smyth) and Carrie Coyner, (R-Chesterfield,) joining Democrats to support the bill.
On Monday, Stanley tried again to introduce a substitute to the bill that would still abolish the death penalty but also institute a mandatory minimum for heinous crimes, a move that Senate Republicans supported. Stanley said he supported abolishing the death penalty, but he was concerned that judges could still issue sentences that would allow someone convicted of serious crimes to eventually go free.
“Now that we know, really, that Virginia is on the verge of ending the death penalty, we must give comfort to the citizens, the public, to know that if someone commits a heinous crime, a crime of special circumstances, a crime that shocks the conscience,” Stanley said, “those people are not going to see the light of day, that they will not see liberty again because the person or persons that they killed will not see liberty again.”
SB 1165 sponsor Senator Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) replied, “[The substitute] basically creates 14 new mandatory minimum life sentences, and we’re actually trying to get away from mandatory minimums. They don’t work for a lot of reasons which I’m not going to reiterate here. I do note, however, they do remove the victim’s voice from the conversation because the victims don’t get to have a say in the sentence either.”
Surovell argued that the legislature isn’t well-positioned to make good pre-judgements about every single potential criminal case.
He said, “It’s awfully presumptuous for us to just decide that these 14 situations deserve this one and only punishment. We need to keep our discretion in our system and I hope we reject the floor amendment.”
Stanley’s amendment was defeated.
“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,” states a joint statement from Northam, Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), and Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax).
They concluded, “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.”
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