Virginia became the first state in the south to abolish the death penalty when Governor Ralph Northam announced Thursday that he signed twin death-penalty repeal bills introduced by Delegate Mike Mullin (D-Newport News) and Senator Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax). Virginia joins 22 other states that have also repealed the death penalty.
“Over our 400-year history, Virginia has executed more people than any other state,” Northam said in a press release. “The death penalty system is fundamentally flawed—it is inequitable, ineffective, and it has no place in this Commonwealth or this country. Virginia has come within days of executing innocent people, and Black defendants have been disproportionately sentenced to death. Abolishing this inhumane practice is the moral thing to do. This is a truly historic day for Virginia, and I am deeply grateful to those who have fought tirelessly and for generations to put an end to capital punishment in our Commonwealth.”
The two bills passed the General Assembly with minimal bipartisan support. HB 2263, sponsored by Mullin, 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, sponsored by Surovell, passed the House 57 to 43, with Delegates Jeff Campbell (R-Smyth) and Carrie Coyner, (R-Chesterfield,) joining Democrats to support the bill.
Stanley had indicated that he would like to support a ban, but that it needed to be combined with legislation to reintroduce mandatory minimums for certain crimes. “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.”
Stanley’s concerns are shared by many Republican legislators, who are alarmed after an Office of the State Inspector General investigation found that the Virginia Parole Board released felons without following proper victim notification procedures.
Attorney general candidate Delegate Jason Miyares (R-Virginia Beach) told The Virginia Star in January, “What frustrates me is what the proponents are saying is, ‘Well, we believe in life without the possibility of parole.’ But we have already seen that life without the possibility of parole does not mean the same thing to the general public. Because the Democrats control the parole board, they let murderer after murderer out back on our street that were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.”
“Eliminating the use of the death penalty here in Virginia is long overdue,” Mullin said in the press release. “The evidence is clear. Use of the death penalty is riddled with wrongful convictions, inadequate representation, and racial bias. I am thankful that with the Governor’s signature today, we have relegated this inhumane practice to the history books.”
The bill is one of the signature pieces of Democratic legislation from the 2021 Virginia session. Earlier in March, Surovell told The Star,“I was pleased that we were able to get a few things through that were really significant accomplishments in a short session. I think abolition of capital punishment really means a lot to a lot of people even though it doesn’t affect a lot of people.”
He said, “It plants a flag about what kind of society you live in, what kind of state and country you want to be. So I think it has a lot of symbolic value to people.”
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