Virginia Senate votes to abolish death penalty

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)

Lawmakers in the Virginia Senate voted Wednesday to abolish the death penalty, setting the state on a course to become the first in the South to end capital punishment.

“If we look back 50 years from now, the electric chair, the lethal injection table — they’re going to be sitting in a museum,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the bill. “This thing is going to be a museum piece and people are going to look back and wonder how it ever was we used these things.”

The legislation passed on a party-line vote, with all 21 of the Democrats in the chamber supporting it. One Republican, Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, abstained. The bill would commute the sentences of the two men currently on Virginia’s death row to life sentences with no possibility of parole.

Going back to colonial times, Virginia has executed more inmates than any other state in the country. And while death sentences have become rare — the last person sentenced to death here was convicted in 2011 — lawmakers in both parties had taken steps in recent years to preserve the state’s ability to carry out executions, most notably legislation to maintain secrecy in sourcing execution drugs backed by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in 2016. And last, year after Democrats won majorities in both chambers, the legislation died in committee amid bi-partisan skepticism.

Supporters of the repeal framed it as a matter of racial justice, citing data that shows prosecutors are more likely to seek the death penalty in cases where the defendant is Black and the victim is White.

Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, called the punishment “lynching’s step-child.”

They also said the possibility of someone who was wrongfully convicted being executed outweighed any arguments in favor. “That ought to give you chills to think of the thousands of people who have been executed in Virginia, how many of them were actually innocent,” Surovell said.

Supporters of executions said the punishment should be reserved for “the worst of the worst,” describing gruesome murders they said warranted death.

“There are clearly cases where capital punishment is an appropriate sanction,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, arguing that while the punishment may have been misused in the past, that current protections are enough to protect against wrongful convictions and racial bias.

Several Republicans said they would have supported the legislation of Democrats in the majority had agreed to an amendment that mandated people convicted of aggravated murder be sentenced to life without parole. Under current law, judges and juries have the discretion to set sentences — be it death or a term of imprisonment — on a case-by-case basis.

Lawmakers in the House of Delegates are set to take a floor vote on similar legislation later this week and Democrats who lead the chamber have said they expect it to pass.

Gov. Ralph Northam has endorsed the legislation. “Today’s vote in the Virginia Senate is a tremendous step toward ending the death penalty in our Commonwealth,” Northam said in a statement. “Virginia has executed more people than any other state. 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.”