RICHMOND – After over 400 years more executions than any other state, Virginia could become the first southern state to abolish the death penalty.
The Virginia Senate and House of Delegates each passed identical laws this week to abolish the death penalty. Virginia would be the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty if either of the two bills advances in the other’s chamber and is signed by the governor.
Under current law, a perpetrator convicted of a class 1 crime who is at least 18 years of age and without intellectual disability at the time of the crime is sentenced to life imprisonment or death.
House and Senate bills remove death from the list of possible penalties for a Class 1 crime. The bills do not allow for parole, conduct allowance, or deserved penalty credit. Judges can suspend part of the life sentence, with the exception of the murder of a law enforcement officer.
State Senator Scott Surovell, D-36
Senate Draft 1165, introduced by Senator Scott Surovell, D-36th, who represents parts of Fairfax and Prince William counties, passed the Senate by 21-17 votes. House Bill 2263, presented by Del. Mike Mullin, D-93rd, of Newport News, passed the House by 57-41 votes on Friday. Three Republicans supported the house measure.
Anyone previously sentenced to death by July 1 will be sentenced to life imprisonment with no parole, conduct bonus, or earned criminal credits. According to the House Bill Impact Statement, two Virginia inmates are on death row, but no execution date has been set for these inmates until December.
In a hearing earlier this week, Mullin discussed how the measure would ultimately save money as the death penalty is “an enormous financial burden on the Commonwealth”. Virginia spends approximately $ 3.9 million annually to maintain four capital defense offices that handle only capital cases. This is evident from the House Bill’s tax return. The move is likely to eliminate the need for these offices.
“If we keep the death penalty, we are prolonging an expensive, ineffective and flawed system,” said Mullin.
Mullin said Virginia has a dark history of extreme racial prejudice and the occasional false belief within the judicial system.
Referring to the 1985 Earl Washington case, Mullin argued that the Commonwealth “knows very well the risks of killing an innocent person.” Washington, an unjustifiably convicted death row inmate, arrived within nine days of his execution.
“Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of abolishing the death penalty is that a justice system without the death penalty enables us to be wrong,” said Mullin.
In a debate during Friday’s vote, death penalty defenders raised awareness of the victims of capital cases. Del. Jason S. Miyares, R-82., Of Virginia Beach, told his colleagues that “these victims ask not to be forgotten”. He argued that the execution of those who commit the “ultimate crimes” is justice, not revenge.
“This is the death penalty … it is not revenge, it is not an eye for an eye, it is our society, our civilization that holds someone accountable for their actions and allows our juries to decide the ultimate punishment,” said Miyares.
Del. Mark H. Levine, D-45., Of Alexandria, a proponent of the law, closed the debate by speaking of his own painful experience. Regarding his sister’s murder, Levine argued that the bill was not about him, his sister, or the victims, but about the state’s potential to kill innocent people.
“I saw evil, I saw it in the face,” said Levine. “I know that there is evil, there is no argument about it. But to take the life of an innocent person – that is evil, and it would be evil to be done by this General Assembly. ”
Governor Ralph Northam said in a press release earlier this week that he was looking forward to signing the bill.
“The practice is fundamentally unfair,” said Northam. “It’s inhuman. It’s ineffective. And we know that in some cases people have been found innocent on death row. “
Capital News Service is a program from the Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University. The students on the program cover a variety of media in Virginia.
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