Virginia set to become first Southern state to abolish the death penalty

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RICHMOND, Va. (NEXSTAR/WRIC) — Virginia is on the verge of becoming the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty after lawmakers gave final approval Monday to a bill that would repeal capital punishment.

The legislation now heads to Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who has said he will sign it into law, making Virginia the 23rd state to stop executions.

“There’s a realization that it is time to end this outdated practice that tends to bring more harm to victims’ family members than providing us any comfort or solace,” said Rachel Sutphin, whose father, Cpl.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 family members of murder victims who sent a letter to the General Assembly asking lawmakers to abolish the death penalty.

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

Historically, Virginia has used the death penalty more than any other state, executing nearly 1,400 people since its days as a colony, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, Virginia, with 113 executions, is second only to 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.

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

Northam had endorsed the effort before the 2021 General Assembly session.

“It is vital that our criminal justice system operates fairly and punishes people equitably. We all know the death penalty doesn’t do that. It is inequitable, ineffective, and inhumane,” Northam, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw said in a joint statement after the votes.

“Thanks to the vote of lawmakers in both chambers, Virginia will join 22 other states that have ended use of the death penalty. This is an important step forward in ensuring that our criminal justice system is fair and equitable to all,” the statement continued.

Republicans raised concerns about justice for victims and their family members, and said 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 the 2004 slayings of his ex-girlfriend, two of her children, and her brother. Thomas Porter was sentenced to die for the 2005 killing of a Norfolk police officer. The repeal legislation would convert their sentences to life in prison without parole.

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

“We have five dead Virginians that this bill will make sure that their killers will not receive justice,” Bell said.

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, governmental, political, and moral leaders have taken a long overdue action needed to make Virginia a fairer and 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 reshaped the Old Dominion into an outlier in the South on racial, social and economic issues.

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

But the death penalty bill marks a particularly stark reversal in a state where executions proceeded in the past decade under both 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, death penalty abolition bills in the General Assembly went nowhere.

On Monday, both chambers approved separate but identical repeal bills. The Senate approved a House bill, advancing it to Northam on a 22-16 vote. Republican Sen. Jill Vogel joined with Democrats in the chamber in voting for passage. Later Monday, House Democrats and two GOP members, Del. Jeff Campbell and Del. Carrie Coyner, voted to approve the Senate version, 57-43.

No date has been set yet for when the governor will sign it, according to his spokeswoman.

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

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

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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