Virginia Senate Votes to Abolish the Death Penalty

Virginia Senate Votes to Abolish the Death Penalty 1

The Virginia Senate voted Wednesday to pass a bill that would abolish the death penalty.

The vote was 21-17 along party lines, with 21 Democrats for and 17 Republicans against the measure. One person, Republican state Sen. Bill Stanley, abstained from the vote.

The bill, SB 1165, sponsored by state Sen. Scott Surovell, a Democrat, now awaits approval by Gov. Ralph Northam, also a Democrat.

Virginia would become the 23rd state in the country to abolish the death penalty if the bill becomes law.

The House version of the bill, HB 2263, also passed on Wednesday. The 15-6 vote consisted of two Republicans joining 13 Democrats in favor of the bill. One person abstained.

The House bill includes a provision that replaces the death penalty with a life sentence without parole, time off for good behavior, or conditional release. Both Senate and House bills will need to reconcile the provision before Northam can sign off on the measure.

Northam in a statement called the Senate’s passage of the bill a “tremendous step toward ending the death penalty” in Virginia.

“It’s time for our commonwealth to join 22 other states and abolish the death penalty,” Northam said. “I applaud every senator who cast a courageous vote today, and I look forward to signing this bill into law.”

Ralph Northam Virginia Governor

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks to the press about a mass shooting, on June 1, 2019. (Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images)

“Virginia has executed more people than any other state,” he added. “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.”

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Virginia has executed more people than any other state, with 1,391 executions in total. In recent history, Virginia is second to Texas in the number of executions since 1976, the year the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty.

“I cannot think of anything that is more awful, unspeakable, and wrong for a government to do than to use its power to execute somebody who didn’t commit the crime they’re accused of,” Surovell said on Wednesday as he introduced the Senate bill, according to The Associated Press. “The problem with capital punishment is that once it’s inflicted you can’t take it back, it can’t be corrected.”

The Senate vote came after a lengthy floor debate. Democrats raised concerns about the death penalty, alleging racial disparities in its application, and pointed to research to support the argument that the death penalty does not deter crime. Meanwhile, Republicans urged state lawmakers to oppose the bill, saying it wouldn’t give victims’ families a chance at justice and voicing concerns that people convicted of heinous murders would be eligible for parole.

Stanley, who ultimately abstained from the vote, initially co-patroned the bill, and opposes capital punishment. He later denounced actions from Democrats after they rejected Republicans’ attempts to amend the bill. The amendments that Stanley proposed would have guaranteed that those convicted of aggravated murder would be sentenced to life without parole.

“This could have been coming out today as a bipartisan effort to end the death penalty. Instead it’s a party-line effort,” Stanley said, reported the AP.

Another two amendments were introduced by state Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, a Republican. The amendments called for allowing the death penalty for those convicted of killing law enforcement officers, and for those convicted of multiple murders during a single incident. Both were also rejected, reported

President Joe Biden previously stated that he is against capital punishment. His 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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