The Bulletin

Virginia legislature sends death penalty repeal to Northam

By: - February 22, 2021 1:00 pm
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)

Virginia lawmakers gave final passage to legislation abolishing the death penalty Monday, sending the bill to Gov. Ralph Northam, who has said he’ll sign it.

Northam’s signature would make Virginia the first state in the South and the 23rd in the nation to end capital punishment.

“This legislation says a lot about who we are as a commonwealth, what kind of values we have as a commonwealth,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the legislation in the Senate. “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 in terms of how this punishment was applied and who it was applied to. This vote also says a lot about justice.”

The legislation would commute the sentences of the two men currently on death row to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

Republicans largely opposed the repeal, unsuccessfully pursuing amendments that would have created mandatory minimum life sentences for certain crimes, including the murder of a police officer.

Democrats, who have opposed mandatory minimum sentences, called the measures unnecessary and said judges and juries should retain sentencing discretion.

During debate in the House, Republicans accused Democrats of ignoring victims. “Just once I’d like to hear anybody in the Democratic Caucus express just a tenth of the emotion for the victims. Not for cold-blooded murderers,” said House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah.

Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, responded by invoking the murder of his girlfriend Alison Parker, a reporter at WDBJ in Roanoke who was shot and killed along side photographer Adam Ward in 2015. He said at one point he wanted to kill the shooter himself. But, he said, “we are not a nation of emotions. … We do not need to be a society that determines that there should be an eye for an eye.”

Northam praised lawmakers for passing the legislation, calling the death penalty “inequitable, ineffective and inhumane.”

“Over Virginia’s long history, this commonwealth has executed more people than any other state,” Northam said in a statement. “And, like many other states, Virginia has come too close to executing an innocent person. It’s time we stop this machinery of death.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.