Virginia Senate Signs Off On Death Penalty Ban

Virginia lawmakers will consider banning the death penalty this year.

By Brian Carlton

February 4, 2021

After a second day of debate, Senate majority approves the death penalty repeal.

RICHMOND-Is it fair to sentence someone to death? Should anyone have that authority? The Virginia Senate went through hours of debate on the subject Wednesday, before taking a step towards banning the death penalty. By a 21-17 vote, SB 1165 passed and moved on to the House. 

State Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax), who filed the bill, pointed out 174 people in the U.S. have been exonerated since 1973 after receiving the death sentence. The Equal Justice Initiative’s data backs that up. And in a situation like this, you don’t get a chance to make it right. 

“The problem with capital punishment is once it’s inflicted, you can’t take it back,” Surovell told the Senate. “It’s not something money can solve, because the person is already dead.” 

Overall, Virginia’s government has executed 1,389 people over more than 400 years. That includes the first state-ordered execution by Europeans here in America. On Dec. 1, 1608, Jamestown officials executed Capt. George Kendall, accused of being part of a conspiracy against the government. 

While Virginia has a long history with the death penalty, things seem to be changing. No Commonwealth jury has given a capital punishment sentence since 2011. Also, a poll released Jan. 10 from Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center found that 56% of Virginians supported repealing the death penalty, with 44% opposed. We’re also at a point where the U.S. is the only western country still using the death penalty. China leads the world in executions, followed by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt. The U.S. currently ranks sixth. 

“This is not something to be proud of,” Surovell pointed out, in regards to the country’s rank. Instead, he argued now’s the time to make a change, for Virginia to become the 23rd state to stop the practice. 

What Changes? 

Surovell’s bill would change several things about Virginia law. First, instead of the death penalty, a person would get life in prison if convicted. Second, a judge would be allowed to suspend some of that sentence, giving the person a potential chance for parole. If you’re convicted of killing a law enforcement officer, the parole option goes off the table, however. Third, anyone currently in prison under a death penalty sentence would automatically have that changed to life in prison if this bill goes through. 

Other senators agreed that change was needed, beyond the law. One thing Sen. Janet Howell (D-Reston) wants to see eliminated is the argument that the death penalty is there for the victim’s family. Howell told her colleagues she used to support the death penalty. But then her father-in-law was murdered by a burglar. 

“One thing I discovered as we went through this trauma was my family didn’t agree on the death penalty,” Howell said. Her husband supported it, but her sons didn’t believe in it. “And I was trying to hold my family together in a very difficult time. I don’t buy the idea that we would support the death penalty for the benefit of victims families. It doesn’t work that way. Trust me, it doesn’t work that way.” 

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

Asking For an Exception

Even many on the opposing side agreed that the death penalty should be eliminated. In most cases, at least. Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham) argued it’s important not just to look at how capital punishment was applied in the past, but how it is applied now. He believes it’s an important tool, used sparingly, but one needed to punish the worst of the worst.

“I believe with the application of DNA evidence, with the years of appeals, capital punishment can be used correctly,” Obenshain said.

His fellow Republican senator Bill Stanley (R-Franklin) presented a different argument. Stanley had been one of the original people to sign onto Surovell’s bill, but he felt one change was needed. On Tuesday, as the Senate entered the first of two days of debate, Stanley had introduced an amendment. His proposal would have eliminated the possibility of parole for convicted murderers. That amendment failed Tuesday and before the final vote, Stanley gave it one more try. 

“Supporting justice is supporting the victim of the crime [and] the victim’s family, but also making sure the system works and is right and does not make mistakes,” Stanley said. “That’s why I proposed life without parole.” 

Multiple senators on the opposing side echoed that argument. Most had no problem repealing the death penalty. They didn’t want to see convicted murders potentially going free. 

“We want to get it right,” Sen. Stanley said. “Someone said who do we support more? The victim or the killer? I support justice.” 

He argued that the state needs to temper justice with mercy. But mercy isn’t simply letting people walk free, Stanley said. 

“Mercy is sparing life, rather than [ending] it in recompense for the life that was taken,” Stanley said. 

In the end, he decided not to vote.

What Happens Now?

Gov. Ralph Northam sent out a statement after the vote, applauding the Senate’s decision.

“Today’s vote in the Virginia Senate is a tremendous step toward ending the death penalty in our Commonwealth,” Northam said. “The practice is fundamentally inequitable. It is inhumane. It is ineffective. And we know that in some cases, people on death row have been found innocent.”

Northam said it’s time for Virginia to join 22 other states and abolish the practice.

“I applaud every Senator who cast a courageous vote today,” he added, “and I look forward to signing this bill into law.”

In order for that to happen, one more vote needs to take place. The House version of the bill moved out of committee on a 15-6 vote Wednesday. It now goes to the full House, with a final reading either coming Friday or more likely next Monday.

Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at [email protected].

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