Will Virginia Abolish the Death Penalty? Surovell’s Bill Advances

Now Governor Northam is expected to sign the bill.

By Megan Schiffres
January 20, 2021

Judiciary Committee sends SB 1165 forward this week, but there’s still several steps before any approval.

RICHMOND – Death penalty cases have at least an error rate of 4.1%, says Jennifer Givens. The director of the University of Virginia’s Innocence Project, Givens pointed out that means one in 22 people sentenced to death are innocent. That adds up to at least 100 innocent men and women out of the roughly 2,500 inmates currently on death row across the country.

“For every nine people executed in this country, one person on death row has been exonerated,” Givens said. “If we want to eliminate the risk of executing innocent people, the only way to do it is to pass this bill.”

Givens spoke before the Virginia Senate Committee on the Judiciary Monday, asking them to approve Senate Bill 1165. The group did just that, advancing it to the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee.

Bills to Abolish the Death Penalty 

Sponsored by Sen. Scott Surovell (D – Fairfax), the bill removes references to the death penalty from Virginia’s Criminal Code. 

The bill also says any person sentenced to life due to a Class 1 felony will not be eligible for parole. Under the bill, they are also not eligible for any good conduct allowances or for conditional release. Under Virginia Code, Class 1 felonies involve the willful, deliberate, and premeditated murder of another person. 

That means the courts would commute the sentences of the two people currently on death row in Virginia. Their sentences will become life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

The Senate committee reported the bill with a substitute. This change clarifies that people who commit Class 1 felony crimes before the age of 18 are eligible for parole. The amendment is necessary to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Montgomery v. Louisiana, where they ruled that juveniles serving life sentences must be eligible for parole. 

Surovelle cited several reasons why he supports the abolishment of the death penalty, including it’s racist history and inequitable enforcement. 

Death Penalty Inequitably Enforced

“You’re much more likely to get the death sentence in this country if you’re poor, if you’re not white, especially if you killed someone who is white, if you have diminished intelligence, if you have a brain injury, or if you are mentally ill. Our system has never properly accounted for those types of problems,” Surovell said. 

He’s right. The history and enforcement of the death penalty has its roots in racism and white supremacy. Today, those under arrest for a crime against a white person are three times as likely to face execution than if their victim is Black. That’s according to a report on the death penalty by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). 

According to the United Nations, even on a worldwide scale, poor people disproportionately feel the impacts of the death penalty. This is for many reasons, including the fact that poor people can’t afford quality legal representation. 

According to Counsel to the Governor Rita Davis, the inequitable enforcement of the penalty is why Gov. Northam supports abolition. 

“It is because of the inequitable use of capital punishment and society’s inability to ensure it’s impartial and unbiased application, that it can no longer be countenanced as a criminal penalty,” Davis said. “The likelihood that such punishment has been applied unfairly, inequitably, and unjustly in one instance eradicates any justification for its application in any instance.” 

RELATED: Virginia’s Racist History With the Death Penalty Could Finally End

Senators Request Law Enforcement Exception

Speaking in opposition to abolition, Executive Director of the Virginia State Police Association (VSPA) Wayne Huggins said lawmakers should consider an exception for the murder of police officers. 

“Any person who will murder a police officer will murder any member of society. And we think they ought to be dealt with the most harshley,” Huggins said. 

The VSPA was the only organization to speak in opposition to the bill. 

Senators Chapman Peterson (D – Fairfax) and Obenshain (R – Harrisonburg) said they don’t support total abolition of the death penalty during the meeting. The possibility that people convicted of killing a police officer could get out on parole was the reason both cited for not supporting the bill. 

“There’s no mechanism right now to ensure that people who commit first degree homicide of a law enforcement officer will actually receive life in prison,” said Sen. Peterson. 

However, the bill Sen. Surovell is proposing says any person the court convicts of a Class 1 felony will not be eligible for parole. Class 1 felonies include killing a police officer. After Surovell pointed this out to Peterson, the senator voted in favor of abolition. 

Obershain, however, did not vote in favor of abolishing the death penalty. Republican senators Thomas Norment (R – Williamsburg), Ryan McDougle (R – Mechanicsville), and Richard Stuart (R – Montross) also did not support abolition. They were outnumberd, 4-10.

Emotional Testimony From Family Members

Two family members of law enforcement officers who died on duty did testify in opposition to the bill. Their testimony also included a request that the ban not apply to people convicted of killing a police officer. 

“I’m strongly against this proposed legislation abolishing the death penalty for all crimes, especially capital murder of a law enforcement officer. This decision should be left to the victim’s family on deciding whether or not to seek the death penalty,” said Michelle Dermyer, widow of Virginia State Trooper Chad Phillip Dermyer. “The paramount goal of sentencing is the imposition of justice. And for some families whose loved ones were violently and cruelly taken from them, by a choice another individual made, that justice is death.” 

Angela Kyle, whose father also died on duty, also testified in opposition to the bill.

However, they were not the only people present at the hearing feeling the direct affects of the death penalty. Rachel Surphin is the daughter of Sheriff’s Corporal Eric Sutphin, who also died while working as a law enforcement officer. She told the committee to abolish the death penalty. The Commonwealth carried out the execution of the man accused of killing her father in 2006. But Surphin says she would prefer those resources go towards supporting the families of victims.

“The state would better spend their time and their money on resources for my family versus killing another person,” Surphin said. “The death penalty is an ineffective and outdated measure that leaves no solice for family members.”

Meg Schiffres is Dogwood’s associate editor. You can reach her at [email protected].

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