RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The movement to make Virginia the first state in the South to abolish the death penalty inched closer to reality Wednesday as the Senate passed a bill to end the use of capital punishment in all cases.
The Democrat-controlled Senate approved the legislation with a 21-17 vote following an emotional debate that lasted nearly two hours.
Some senators framed the legislation as a matter of racial justice, citing data that killers of white people are more likely to receive a death sentence compared to those convicted of murdering black people.
“The death penalty is lynching’s step child,” said Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton).
Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax), who introduced the bill, said more than 170 people have been sentenced to death and then later exonerated due to the development of DNA profiling.
“I cannot think of anything that is more awful, unspeakable and wrong for a government to do than to use its power to execute somebody who didn’t commit the crime they’re accused of,” Surovell said Wednesday. “The problem with capital punishment is once it’s inflicted, you can’t take it back.”
The legislation would commute the death sentences of the two offenders currently on death row in Virginia to life without the possibility of parole. It redefines capital murder as aggravated murder and requires a judge to sentence every person convicted moving forward to life in prison.
“The judge is then allowed, if they want to, to suspend some or none of that sentence, except in the case of aggravated murder of a law enforcement officer,” Surovell said.
Every Democrat in the Senate voted in favor of the bill and all but one Republican, Sen. William Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin), rejected the legislation.
Stanley, the chief co-patron of the bill, abstained after his amendment was rejected on Tuesday. It would’ve included a mandatory minimum of life without parole for all individuals convicted of aggravated murder.
“As it stands now, someone who may have killed multiple people could get a second chance at freedom and I don’t think that’s right for the victim and the victim’s family,” Stanley said.
Many Republicans with pro-life views said the use of the death penalty should be extremely rare but the option should be preserved to punish the most heinous crimes.
“One of the things that concerns me most is justice for the victim,” said Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield). “I have to ask, who do we support more–the victim or the killer?”
“We all want to be compassionate but there’s some people who don’t deserve our compassion,” said Sen. Richard Stuart (R-Stafford).
Another amendment from Senate Republican Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City) that sought to strike a balance failed on Tuesday. It would’ve kept the death penalty on the table for short list of crimes, including capital murder of a police officer.
“We want to work with you,” Stanley told his Democratic colleagues Wednesday. “This could have been a bipartisan effort instead it’s a party line effort.”
Repealing Virginia’s death penalty has garnered support from several notable lawmakers, with Gov. Ralph Northam (D) endorsing the effort before the 2021 General Assembly session began in mid-January.
State Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), a gubernatorial contender, shared the story of Jerry Givens with her colleagues on Wednesday. Givens was the state’s chief executioner for 17 years who later became a vocal critic against the death penalty. He died last year after contracting COVID-19.
“During the floor debate today, all I could hear was Jerry Givens’ impassioned testimony that it took 62 executions for him to see that the death penalty wasn’t the right thing to do,” McClellan said in a statement. “It is past time to end the death penalty in Virginia.”
The House Courts of Justice Committee passed a similar measure earlier in the day with a bipartisan vote of 15-6, with one abstention.
The committee approved a substitute clarifying that those currently charged but not convicted of capital murder before the bill’s effective date cannot be sentenced to death. It further clarified that anyone currently facing a death sentence or convicted of a Class One felony moving forward will not be eligible for conditional release for a terminal illness.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court let states resume the death penalty in 1976, Virginia has conducted the second most executions at 113, behind only Texas. Despite this, the last execution in Virginia was in 2017.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 25 states still have the death penalty, 22 don’t and three have moratoriums imposed by their governors.