All Democrats running for governor in Virginia say they support ending the death penalty

By: - December 15, 2020 12:01 am
Correctional officers stand at the entrance to the Greensville Correctional Center on Nov. 10, 2009, near Jarratt, Virginia. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Correctional officers stand at the entrance to the Greensville Correctional Center on Nov. 10, 2009, near Jarratt, Virginia. Greensville is home to the state’s execution chamber. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

All four Democrats running for governor in Virginia say they support abolishing the death penalty, including one candidate, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who allowed several executions to proceed during his term.

While in office, McAuliffe said he personally opposed capital punishment, but felt obligated to uphold state law. The three executions that took place in McAuliffe’s term included William Morva, who was put to death in July 2017 for a double-murder despite pleas for clemency from advocates who said Morva suffered from mental illness. 

Since a national moratorium on the death penalty ended in 1976, Virginia has executed 113 people, second only to Texas, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The Democratic takeover of the Virginia General Assembly in 2019 raised death penalty opponents’ hopes it would soon be ended, but repeal bills failed to pass in the 2020 legislative session. If repeal legislation doesn’t pass in 2021, it could fall to the next governor to decide whether the death penalty should or shouldn’t continue.

In a primary field where all candidates are laying claim to progressive ideals despite their differing records, the answer was unanimous.

Terry’s position is clear: he personally opposes the death penalty and as governor he would sign legislation to abolish it in the commonwealth,” said McAuliffe spokesman Jake Rubenstein, adding McAuliffe “was bound to uphold the laws of the commonwealth” while dealing with death penalty cases from 2014 to 2018.

In a statement, former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy said the death penalty “takes the lives of innocent people and disproportionately takes the lives of people of color.”

The next governor of Virginia must understand that the death penalty is a stain on the moral fabric of our society,” Carroll Foy said. “It must be abolished.”

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax said “the death penalty has no place in civilized society and should be abolished” in a statement.

“This practice has proven to be tremendously discriminatory along racial and socioeconomic lines, ineffective as a general deterrent and too often responsible for the killing of people who were, in fact, innocent,” he said.

A spokesman for Sen. Jennifer McClellan said that, as a legislator, she has “has supported abolition of the death penalty, supported a moratorium and consistently opposed the expansion of the death penalty.”

“As Virginia’s next governor, Jennifer McClellan would sign a bill to abolish the death penalty in Virginia,” said McClellan spokesman Jared Leopold.

In the 2020 session, McClellan voted in a Senate committee to keep a death penalty repeal bill alive, but the bill ended up being put off for reconsideration next year.

McClellan’s lengthy history in the General Assembly has led to a long record of death penalty-related votes. 

In 2007, McClellan joined many House Democrats in voting for a bill to expand the death penalty by allowing capital charges to be brought against people who were close accomplices to heinous crimes, even if they didn’t murder anyone themselves. 

Then-Gov. Tim Kaine vetoed the bill, saying he didn’t believe expanding the death penalty was “necessary to protect human life.” McClellan’s campaign said she initially voted for the bill due to its potential impact in terrorism cases, noting she later voted to back Kaine’s veto and opposed similar bills in several other legislative sessions.

McClellan and McAuliffe split in one of the last major death penalty debates to unfold in the state legislature.

In 2016, a Republican lawmaker introduced a bill to make the electric chair the default execution method if no lethal injection drugs were available, a proposal meant to create a backup plan with the state’s supply of execution drugs dwindling due to suppliers’ discomfort with the practice.

McAuliffe said he wouldn’t support the bill as drafted, but he proposed an alternative: creating a new layer of secrecy hiding where the state gets its lethal injection drugs so private companies would be less squeamish about selling drugs for use in Virginia executions. At the time, McAuliffe said his proposal offered a “valid path forward to continue Virginia’s policy of capital punishment.”

Many Democrats, including McClellan, voted against the plan. However, it passed the Republican-led General Assembly and McAuliffe signed it into law.

Wielding majority power in the legislature this year, Democrats effectively repealed the secrecy provision, but the change will only apply to new contracts for lethal-injection drugs going forward.

Gov. Ralph Northam, who cannot run for re-election, has said he would sign a bill replacing the death penalty with life without parole if the General Assembly sent it to his desk. So far that hasn’t happened, and no executions have been scheduled during Northam’s term.

Another Democrat considering a run for governor next year — Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas — has been the chief sponsor of legislation to repeal the death penalty. His bill, which would have given a reprieve to two inmates still on death row, did not get a hearing in the Democratic-led House Courts of Justice Committee.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.