The Washington Post

Law­mak­ers voted to abol­ish the prac­tice, which would make the state the South’s first to do so.

Stalled talks picked up amid calls for racial jus­tice

- BY LAURA VOZZELLA AND GRE­GORY S. SCH­NEI­DER Crime · U.S. News · US Politics · Society · Discrimination · Politics · Human Rights · Richmond · Virginia · United States Senate · Republican Party (United States) · Democratic Party (United States) · Delaware · Hampton, VA · Congress of the United States · Spain · Jamestown, Virginia · U.S. Supreme Court · United States of America · Texas · Oklahoma · Washington · Maryland · Colorado · Minneapolis · American Civil Liberties Union · Ralph Northam · Commonwealth · Richard L. Saslaw · Stanley · Jill Holtzman Vogel · Todd Gilbert · Gilbert · Floyd · Confederate States of America

RICH­MOND — Two bills to abol­ish the death penalty in Vir­ginia won fi­nal ap­proval in the state Gen­eral As­sem­bly on Mon­day and were headed to Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who is ex­pected to sign them.

Vir­ginia — his­tor­i­cally one of the na­tion’s most ac­tive death penalty states — would then be­come the first in the South to aban­don the ul­ti­mate pun­ish­ment.

The state Se­nate ap­proved by a vote of 22 to 16 a House bill that bans ex­e­cu­tions and es­tab­lishes a max­i­mum pun­ish­ment of life in prison with­out the pos­si­bil­ity of pa­role. A judge would have dis­cre­tion to sus­pend part of that sen­tence — a stick­ing point for some Republican­s, who pushed un­suc­cess­fully to make life with­out pa­role a manda­tory min­i­mum.

An iden­ti­cal Se­nate bill, spon­sored by Sen. Scott A. Surov­ell (D-fair­fax), passed the House by a 57-to-43 vote, with two Republican­s join­ing all Democrats. Del. Michael P. Mullin (D-new­port News), a pros­e­cu­tor for the city of Hamp­ton, car­ried the House ver­sion.

“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,” Northam, Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-fair­fax) and House Speaker Eileen Filler- Corn (D-fair­fax) said in a jointly is­sued writ­ten state­ment. “It’s time we stop this ma­chin­ery of death.”

Surov­ell said the mea­sures re­turn Vir­ginia to its his­tor­i­cal roots as the place where the right to trial by jury, the right to cros­sex­am­ine ac­cusers and other el­e­ments of the mod­ern crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem were cre­ated.

“This bill speaks to a lot of Vir­gini­ans, a lot of peo­ple around the coun­try,” Surov­ell said ahead of pas­sage. “It says a lot about how we value hu­man life. It says a lot about how our com­mon­wealth is go­ing to move past some of our dark­est mo­ments.” Sen. Wil­liam M. Stan­ley Jr.

(R-franklin), a long­time death penalty foe who had co-spon­sored Surov­ell’s bill, made a last­ditch ef­fort to change the House bill to guar­an­tee that some­one con­victed of “ag­gra­vated mur­der” would never be el­i­gi­ble for pa­role or any other form of early re­lease.

“If some­one com­mits a heinous crime, a crime that shocks the con­science . . . those peo­ple are not go­ing to see the light of day. They will not see lib­erty again,” he said. After that ef­fort failed, Stan­ley ab­stained from vot­ing on the House bill.

Sen. Jill Holtz­man Vo­gel (RFauquier) was the lone Se­nate Repub­li­can to vote for the bill.

The House voted after a long, emo­tional de­bate. Mullin ac­knowl­edged he had prob­a­bly made er­rors while pros­e­cut­ing thou­sands of crim­i­nal cases and said he could not tol­er­ate the idea that an in­no­cent per­son might be put to death.

“I no longer wish to be on the side of vengeance,” Mullin said. “I ask that this body abol­ish the death penalty in Vir­ginia.”

House Mi­nor­ity Leader Todd Gilbert (R-shenan­doah) then scolded Democrats for ex­press­ing sym­pa­thy for crim­i­nals. “I have yet to see . . . even a lit­tle bit of con­cern for vic­tims of crime. That should con­cern ev­ery Vir­ginian, that that is where that cau­cus is now,” Gilbert said.

Del. Chris L. Hurst (D-mont­gomery), who five years ago suf­fered the loss of girl­friend Ali­son Parker when she and a co-worker were gunned down on live tele­vi­sion while con­duct­ing a news interview, said he had not planned to speak but was pro­voked by Gilbert’s words.

“I’m tired of the pan­der­ing,” Hurst said, de­scrib­ing his anger at Parker’s death but say­ing the state should not be an agent of re­venge.

“We are not a na­tion of emo­tions,” he said. “We do not need to be a so­ci­ety that de­ter­mines that there should be an eye for an eye.”

Vir­ginia has im­posed cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment since Colo­nial times, ahead of the rest of the na­tion. Since a spy for Spain was ex­e­cuted in the Jamestown colony in 1608, 1,390 peo­ple have been put to death in the state, ac­cord­ing to the Death Penalty In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court re­in­stated the death penalty in 1976, Vir­ginia has ex­e­cuted 113 peo­ple — more than any state but Texas. Ok­la­homa is a close third.

Some Vir­ginia Republican­s have ar­gued that ex­e­cu­tion is still war­ranted for the most vi­cious crimes.

The death penalty is out­lawed in neigh­bor­ing D.C. and Mary­land, which abol­ished it in 2013. Vir­ginia would be­come the 23rd state to ban the pun­ish­ment, fol­low­ing Colorado’s abo­li­tion last year.

In some sense, the death penalty has been dy­ing of its own ac­cord in Vir­ginia, thanks to the grow­ing re­luc­tance of pros­e­cu­tors to seek it and of ju­ries to im­pose it. No jury in Vir­ginia has handed down a death sen­tence since 2011. The state has not ex­e­cuted any­one since 2017, when it put two peo­ple to death.

But un­til re­cently, Vir­ginia law­mak­ers had re­sisted the na­tional trend to­ward abo­li­tion. Dur­ing a scarcity of lethal-in­jec­tion drugs in 2016, the Republican­s who then led the leg­is­la­ture passed a bill to make the elec­tric chair Vir­ginia’s de­fault method of ex­e­cu­tion if the drugs were un­avail­able.

Un­der the law then, as now, con­demned in­mates can choose the method of ex­e­cu­tion: lethal in­jec­tion or the chair. (The last in­mate to pick elec­tro­cu­tion in Vir­ginia was Robert Glea­son Jr. in 2013.)

The 2016 bill would have let the state use the elec­tric chair when it could not ob­tain the drugs. Gov. Terry Mcauliffe (D) gut­ted the leg­is­la­tion, but in a way, that al­lowed the state to carry on with ex­e­cu­tions by spe­cially or­der­ing the drugs from com­pound­ing phar­ma­cies. The phar­ma­cies’ iden­ti­ties were to be kept se­cret to shield them from po­lit­i­cal pres­sure.

The plan be­came law but was re­pealed last year as Democrats took con­trol of the Gen­eral As­sem­bly.

Their ef­forts to abol­ish the death penalty stalled dur­ing that leg­isla­tive ses­sion. But the move­ment picked up steam later in the year, amid calls for racial jus­tice fol­low­ing the killing of Ge­orge Floyd, an un­armed Black man, in Min­neapo­lis po­lice cus­tody. Some Democrats who had long sup­ported the death penalty, in­clud­ing Saslaw, were per­suaded to sup­port abo­li­tion.

Na­tion­ally, non-whites ac­count for a dis­pro­por­tion­ate 55 per­cent of in­mates on death row, ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union.

In Vir­ginia, home to the one­time cap­i­tal of the Con­fed­er­acy, the death penalty has had a strong con­nec­tion to the com­mon­wealth’s his­tory of racial in­jus­tice. State law used to dif­fer­en­ti­ate cap­i­tal and non­cap­i­tal crimes based on the race of the per­pe­tra­tor and the race of the vic­tim. Once that dis­crim­i­na­tion was de­clared un­con­sti­tu­tional, it per­sisted in prac­tice be­cause of the dis­cre­tion af­forded all-white ju­ries, ac­cord­ing to Robert Dun­ham, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Death Penalty In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter.

From 1900 to 1969, he said, Vir­ginia did not ex­e­cute a sin­gle White per­son for any of­fense that did not re­sult in death, while 73 Black men were ex­e­cuted for rape, at­tempted rape or rob­bery.

 ?? ALEXA WELCH ED­LUND/RICH­MOND TIMES-DIS­PATCH/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS ?? Sen. Scott A. Surov­ell (D-fair­fax), seen in Rich­mond on Feb. 3, is a pa­tron of a bill against the death penalty that passed 57 to 43.
ALEXA WELCH ED­LUND/RICH­MOND TIMES-DIS­PATCH/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS Sen. Scott A. Surov­ell (D-fair­fax), seen in Rich­mond on Feb. 3, is a pa­tron of a bill against the death penalty that passed 57 to 43.

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