Virginia Lawmakers Set to Abolish Long-Standing Death Penalty

January 22, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
The Virginia State Capitol on January 8, 2020, in Richmond, Va. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images/TNS)

RICHMOND, Va. – A Virginia General Assembly bill introduced last week to abolish the death penalty has the added backing of the governor in a state that has led the nation in the number of convicts given capital punishment.

At the same time, newly inaugurated President Joe Biden also is advocating for an end to the death penalty.

During Northam’s State of the Commonwealth Address to a virtual joint meeting of the General Assembly, he said, “When we all agree that a crime deserves the strongest punishment we can give, it’s still vital to make sure our criminal justice system operates fairly and punishes people equitably. We know the death penalty doesn’t do that. But make no mistake—if you commit the most heinous crimes, you should spend the rest of your days in prison.

“But here are the facts about the death penalty. Virginia has executed more people than any other state—more than 1,300 people. And here’s another truth: a person is more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death when the victim is White, than when the victim is Black.”

With a Democratic majority in both the House and Senate, as well as a Democratic governor, the bills, SB 1165 and HB 1779, are nearly certain to pass, ending a four century tradition of the death penalty in Virginia, according to the bills’ sponsors.

Among the supporters for abolishing the death penalty is the advocacy group Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

“The death penalty in Virginia is a failed government program,” the organization said in a statement to The Well News. “It is expensive, unnecessary and does nothing to deter violent crime.”

Nevertheless, some Republicans continue to insist the death penalty should remain as a crime deterrent.

One of them is Republican Delegate Rob Bell, who says the death penalty should be an option for the family members of murder victims to help give them closure.

Until his death from COVID-19 on Jan. 1, another supporter was State Sen. A. Benton Chafin Jr., who said the death penalty should be reserved for the most heinous crimes.

The governor gave his State of the Commonwealth Address one day before Cory Johnson, who was convicted in 1992 of murdering seven people in Richmond, was executed by injection at a federal prison.

Prosecutors said he was an enforcer for the Newtowne crack cocaine gang. Two other gang members remain on death row in federal prisons.

Johnson’s lawyers said in a statement, “We wish also to say that the fact Cory Johnson should never have been executed cannot diminish the pain and loss experienced by the families of the victims in this case. We wish them peace and healing.”

Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty. Three others — California, Oregon and Pennsylvania — have enacted moratoriums on the punishment. The other states still allow it.

The Virginia Senate bill was introduced by Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell, who hopes to reverse previous failures with growing support among Republicans who formerly opposed changing the law.

Republican Sen. Bill Stanley agreed to be a co-sponsor.

In addition to eliminating the death penalty, the pending bills would commute the sentences of the two inmates on Virginia’s death row to life in prison without parole.

Virginia’s change of course on the death penalty is far different from Trump administration policy.

The Trump administration’s Justice Department announced plans to resume executions for federal crimes in 2019. On July 14, 2020, Daniel Lewis Lee became the first inmate since 2003 executed by the federal government.

The United States is one of the 35 nations — and the only Western country — that uses the death penalty.

Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring said in a recent statement, “It is time for Virginia to end the death penalty and I will support Gov. Northam’s efforts to make it happen this year. Its abolition must be part of our work to reform a flawed and imperfect criminal justice system.”

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