Legislation to abolish the death penalty in Virginia cleared its first legislative hurdle Monday, passing out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on 10-4 vote, with nine Democrats and one Republican supporting the measure.
Supporters of the bill, which include Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration and an array of faith leaders, argued the death penalty has been disproportionately used against Black defendants and noted the sentence has repeatedly been handed down in cases where defendants were subsequently exonerated.
“Historically the use of capital punishment has been inequitable,” Northam’s chief counsel, Rita Davis, said, 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.
Law enforcement groups and their supporters testified against the repeal, including the Virginia State Police Association and family members of officers who were killed in the line of duty.
“If you do go down this road, at least put a provision that law enforcement isn’t out there alone,” said former Republican state Sen. Bill Carrico, a retired state trooper, calling for a death sentence to remain an option for people convicted of killing police officers.
However, family members of fallen officers were not unanimous in their opposition. Rachel Sutphin, the daughter of a Montgomery County sheriff’s corporal killed by William Morva, called the death penalty “an ineffective and outdated measure that brings no solace to family members.” Morva was executed in 2017, the last execution carried out by the state.
The bill still needs approval from the Senate’s Finance Committee to make it to the chamber’s floor for a full vote, but Monday’s vote suggests the measure has significantly more support than last year when it failed to make it out of committee in either the House or the Senate. The only Republican to support the bill, Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, did not speak on the measure.
There are currently two men on death row in Virginia. Their executions have not yet been scheduled.
The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.