The state Senate approved by a vote of 22 to 16 a House bill that bans executions and establishes a maximum punishment of life in prison without the possibility of parole. A judge would have discretion to suspend part of that sentence — a sticking point for some Republicans, who pushed unsuccessfully to make life without parole a mandatory minimum.
An identical Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), passed the House by a 57-to-43 vote, with two Republicans joining all Democrats. Del. Michael P. Mullin (D-Newport News), a prosecutor for the city of Hampton, carried the House version.
“Over Virginia’s long history, this Commonwealth has executed more people than any other state. And, like many other states, Virginia has come too close to executing an innocent person,” Northam, Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) and House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) said in a jointly issued written statement. “It’s time we stop this machinery of death.”
Surovell said the measures return Virginia to its historical roots as the place where the right to trial by jury, the right to cross-examine accusers and other elements of the modern criminal justice system were created.
“This bill speaks to a lot of Virginians, a lot of people around the country,” Surovell said ahead of passage. “It says a lot about how we value human life. It says a lot about how our commonwealth is going to move past some of our darkest moments.”
Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin), a longtime death penalty foe who had co-sponsored Surovell’s bill, made a last-ditch effort to change the House bill to guarantee that someone convicted of “aggravated murder” would never be eligible for parole or any other form of early release.
“If someone commits a heinous crime, a crime that shocks the conscience . . . those people are not going to see the light of day. They will not see liberty again,” he said. After that effort failed, Stanley abstained from voting on the House bill.
Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier) was the lone Senate Republican to vote for the bill.
The House voted after a long, emotional debate. Mullin acknowledged he had probably made errors while prosecuting thousands of criminal cases and said he could not tolerate the idea that an innocent person might be put to death.
“I no longer wish to be on the side of vengeance,” Mullin said. “I ask that this body abolish the death penalty in Virginia.”
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) then scolded Democrats for expressing sympathy for criminals. “I have yet to see . . . even a little bit of concern for victims of crime. That should concern every Virginian, that that is where that caucus is now,” Gilbert said.
Del. Chris L. Hurst (D-Montgomery), who five years ago suffered the loss of girlfriend Alison Parker when she and a co-worker were gunned down on live television while conducting a news interview, said he had not planned to speak but was provoked by Gilbert’s words.
“I’m tired of the pandering,” Hurst said, describing his anger at Parker’s death but saying the state should not be an agent of revenge.
“We are not a nation of emotions,” he said. “We do not need to be a society that determines that there should be an eye for an eye.”
Virginia has imposed capital punishment since Colonial times, ahead of the rest of the nation. Since a spy for Spain was executed in the Jamestown colony in 1608, 1,390 people have been put to death in the state, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, Virginia has executed 113 people — more than any state but Texas. Oklahoma is a close third.
Some Virginia Republicans have argued that execution is still warranted for the most vicious crimes.
The death penalty is outlawed in neighboring D.C. and Maryland, which abolished it in 2013. Virginia would become the 23rd state to ban the punishment, following Colorado’s abolition last year.
In some sense, the death penalty has been dying of its own accord in Virginia, thanks to the growing reluctance of prosecutors to seek it and of juries to impose it. No jury in Virginia has handed down a death sentence since 2011. The state has not executed anyone since 2017, when it put two people to death.
But until recently, Virginia lawmakers had resisted the national trend toward abolition. During a scarcity of lethal-injection drugs in 2016, the Republicans who then led the legislature passed a bill to make the electric chair Virginia’s default method of execution if the drugs were unavailable.
Under the law then, as now, condemned inmates can choose the method of execution: lethal injection or the chair. (The last inmate to pick electrocution in Virginia was Robert Gleason Jr. in 2013.)
The 2016 bill would have let the state use the electric chair when it could not obtain the drugs. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) gutted the legislation, but in a way, that allowed the state to carry on with executions by specially ordering the drugs from compounding pharmacies. The pharmacies’ identities were to be kept secret to shield them from political pressure.
The plan became law but was repealed last year as Democrats took control of the General Assembly.
Their efforts to abolish the death penalty stalled during that legislative session. But the movement picked up steam later in the year, amid calls for racial justice following the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in Minneapolis police custody. Some Democrats who had long supported the death penalty, including Saslaw, were persuaded to support abolition.
Nationally, non-Whites account for a disproportionate 55 percent of inmates on death row, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
In Virginia, home to the onetime capital of the Confederacy, the death penalty has had a strong connection to the commonwealth’s history of racial injustice. State law used to differentiate capital and noncapital crimes based on the race of the perpetrator and the race of the victim. Once that discrimination was declared unconstitutional, it persisted in practice because of the discretion afforded all-White juries, according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
From 1900 to 1969, he said, Virginia did not execute a single White person for any offense that did not result in death, while 73 Black men were executed for rape, attempted rape or robbery.