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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Virginia Lawmakers Vote to End Death Penalty, Send Bill to Governor for Signature

Lawmakers in Virginia gave final approval on Monday to legislation that will end capital punishment in the state.

Both houses of the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation that abolishes capital punishment in Virginia, including for people currently on death row.

The House bill, HB 2263, and the identical Senate bill, SB 1165, now head to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk for a signature that will give them the force of law. The Democratic governor has previously said he plants to approve the legislation and in a joint statement following its passage, Northam said, “It’s time we stop this machinery of death.”

A spokesperson for the governor said no date has yet been set for when he will sign it into law, making Virginia the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty.

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Virginia has used the death penalty more than any other state, executing nearly 1,400 people since its days as a colony, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The effort to repeal the death penalty was led by Virginia’s new Democratic majority, in full control of the General Assembly for a second year. Democrat lawmakers have argued that the death penalty has been applied disproportionately to people of color, the mentally ill, and the poor.

“It is vital that our criminal justice system operates fairly and punishes people equitably. We all know the death penalty doesn’t do that. It is inequitable, ineffective, and inhumane,” Northam, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw said in the joint statement.

Republicans have raised concerns about justice for victims and their family members, and said that some crimes are so heinous that the only just punishment is for the perpetrators to be put to death.

“Missing from @GovernorVA, @VAHouseDems, @VASenateDems statement on the death penalty? Any mention of victims or their families. Its absence speaks volumes,” the Virginia House GOP said in a statement.

Two men remain on Virginia’s death row—Anthony Juniper and Thomas Porter. Juniper was sentenced to death for killing his ex-girlfriend, two of her children, and her brother, while Porter received the death penalty in the slaying of a Norfolk police officer. The new legislation would convert their sentences to life in prison without parole.

During a virtual House debate Monday, Republican Del. Rob Bell said, “We have five dead Virginians that this bill will make sure that their killers will not receive justice.”

Abolishing the death penalty is the latest in a string of progressive measures adopted in Virginia. Last year, lawmakers passed some of the region’s strictest gun laws and some of its loosest abortion restrictions.

President Joe Biden’s campaign, in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, said that Biden wants to eliminate the federal death penalty.

“Because we cannot ensure we get death penalty cases right every time, Biden will work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example. These individuals should instead serve life sentences without probation or parole,” Biden’s campaign website previously stated.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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