Virginia lawmakers vote to abolish the death penalty


RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – State lawmakers gave final approval Monday to legislation that will end capital punishment in Virginia, a sea change for a state that has executed more people in its long history than any other.

Legislation repealing the death penalty is now targeting Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who has said he will make it law, making Virginia the 23rd state to stop executions.

“There is an awareness that it is time to put an end to this outdated practice that tends to cause more harm to the victims’ families than to bring us comfort or consolation,” said Rachel Sutphin, whose father, Cpl. Eric Sutphin, was fatally shot in 2006 while working for the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office.

William Morva, the man convicted of killing Eric Sutphin, was executed in 2017. Two years later, Rachel Sutphin was one of 13 relatives of murder victims who sent a letter to the General Assembly calling on lawmakers to abolish the penalty of death.

“By voting for abolition, we are showing the way, that if Virginia, the state with the longest history and the highest number of people executed, if we can do it, so can other states,” said Rachel Sutphin.

Virginia’s new Democratic majority, in full control of the General Assembly for the second year, pushed for the repeal effort, arguing that the death penalty has been disproportionately applied to people of color, the mentally ill and the homeless.

“It is vital that our criminal justice system works fairly and punishes people fairly. We all know that the death penalty does not do that. It is unfair, ineffective and inhumane, ”said Northam, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, in a joint statement after the vote.

Republicans expressed concern about justice for the victims and their families, saying there are some crimes that are so heinous that the perpetrators deserve to be executed.

Only two men remain on Virginia’s death row. Anthony Juniper was sentenced to death in 2004 for the murders of his ex-girlfriend, two of his children, and his brother. Thomas Porter was sentenced to death for the murder of a Norfolk police officer in 2005. The repeal legislation would convert his sentences to life without parole.

During the debate in the House of Representatives on Monday, Republican Del. Rob Bell described those killings in gruesome detail and said Porter and Juniper would be watching the vote from prison with particular interest.

“We have five dead Virginians that this bill will ensure that their murderers do not receive justice,” said Bell.

Porter, Juniper and their families have declined to comment through their attorney, Rob Lee, executive director of the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center.

“By eliminating the death penalty, government, political and moral leaders have taken long-needed action to make Virginia a more just Commonwealth,” Lee said in a statement.

The passage of the legislation was just the latest in a long list of sweeping policy changes enacted by Democrats, who have increasingly reformed the Old Dominion is an outlier in the South on racial, social and economic issues.

Last year, lawmakers passed some of the region’s strictest gun laws, the broadest LGBTQ protections, its highest minimum wage, and some of the loosest abortion restrictions. This year too, lawmakers have been passing one progressive measure after another.

But the death penalty bill marks a particularly stark change in a state where executions have taken place in the past decade under Republican and Democratic governors. The state legislature and state officials have also acted in recent years to preserve Virginia’s ability to carry out executions and limit transparency around the process.

Even last year, bills to abolish the death penalty in the General Assembly went nowhere.

On Monday, both houses passed separate but identical repeal bills. The Senate passed a House bill and sent it to Northam on a 22-16 vote. Republican Senator Jill Vogel joined Democrats in the House to vote for passage. Later Monday, House Democrats and two members of the Republican Party, Del. Jeff Campbell and Del. Carrie Coyner, voted to pass the Senate version, 57-43.

A date for when the governor will sign it has not yet been set, according to his spokesman.

Historically, Virginia has used the death penalty more than any other state, executing nearly 1,400 people since its colony days, according to the Center for Information on the Death Penalty. Since the US Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, Virginia, with 113 executions, ranks second after Texas.

Michael Stone, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, called the vote to abolish capital punishment a historic moment in the state’s history.

“We hope that Virginia will set an example for other states in the former Confederacy to take this bold step toward humane reform of our legal justice system,” Stone said.

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