Virginia is just a historic signature away from eliminating the death penalty after sometimes emotional debate in the General Assembly on Monday.
In 22-16 and 57-42 votes, largely along party lines, the Virginia Senate and House, respectively, passed identical death penalty abolition bills backed by Gov. Ralph Northam, to end centuries of capital punishment in Virginia that has led to nearly 1,400 executions since 1608.
“Over Virginia’s long history, this Commonwealth has executed more people than any other state. And, like many other states, Virginia has come too close to executing an innocent person. It’s time we stop this machinery of death,” said Northam and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate in a prepared statement.
Virginia will become the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty and join 22 other states that do not have capital punishment.
Virginia has also executed 113 people in modern times, the second most among states, since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume in 1976.
The identical bills, HB 2263 and SB 1165, were introduced by Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, and Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax. The House and Senate each earlier passed its own bill and then on Monday the matching bill from the other chamber. The bills must first be enrolled and then sent to the governor’s desk.
The legislation will make the 15 kinds of crimes that are now capital murder — and punishable by death or life in prison without parole — aggravated murder punishable by life in prison.
However, in current law and under the new law, a judge, except in the case of the murder of a police officer in the line of duty, can still sentence someone to a sentence less than life — something that rarely has happened.
The Senate on Monday rejected, for the second time, an amendment by Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, who opposes the death penalty, that would mean that all 15 types of capital murder — not just the murder of a police officer — would require true life sentences.
Stanley argued he wanted to vote for abolition — as did some other Republicans — if the public could be assured that people convicted of such heinous crimes are never released. Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier, was the only Republican voting for abolition in the Senate.
Surovell, arguing for passage of the House bill by the Senate, said that while the death penalty involves a relatively small number of people, it will send a strong message that Virginia is leading the world again on justice and human rights.
The debate got somewhat emotional in the House on Monday.
Mullin, his voice breaking at times, urged his colleagues to pass the Senate version of his bill. He said he was recently in Jamestown near the site of Virginia’s first execution. “Our commonwealth, since that time, has expressed a blood lust second to none in this country.”
“There is no separating the death penalty in Virginia from racism. They are inextricably linked. It’s a random, arbitrary and racist process. In fact, it wasn’t even until 1997, that Virginia even executed a white person for killing a Black and even that’s only happened four times,” Mullin said.
Mullin raised the case of Earl Washington Jr., wrongfully convicted of a 1982 rape and murder in Culpeper, who came within days of execution and was later proven innocent by DNA testing.
“We cannot remove human error from this system,” Mullin said.
Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, the House minority leader, said that in the debate on the issue in both houses in recent weeks, the Democrats have failed to express “even a little concern” for the victims of crime.
“Just once, I would love to see the delegate from Newport News or anybody else in the Democratic caucus, express even a tenth of the same emotion that [Mullin] just expressed, some measure, no matter how small, of angst, of regret, of concern not for cold-blooded murderers but for people who’ve been robbed, who have been stolen from, whose homes have been broken into, whose loved ones have been murdered,” Gilbert said.
Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, said it has been said by some that in this vote “’the eyes of the world are upon us.’” He said, “There’s two people watching that have a particular interest because they are the only two Virginians right now on death row.”
The legislation means the two men would serve life in prison without parole and not be executed.
One is Thomas Alexander Porter, 45, sentenced to die for the 2005 capital murder of Stanley Reaves, an officer with the Norfolk Police Department. The other is Anthony B. Juniper, 49, sentenced to death for the 2004 capital murders of Keshia Stephens; her brother Rueben Harrison III; and two of her daughters, Nykia Stephens, 4, and Shearyia Stephens, 2.
Bell graphically outlined their crimes including gunshots to the head. “They’re watching. Oh, my goodness they’re watching. The loud cheering that you’re about to hear from [death row] can metaphorically be heard at the graveside of those five crime victims,” Bell said.
“We have five dead Virginians that this bill will make sure that their killers do not receive justice and I hope you’ll vote against the bill,” Bell said.
Mullin responded, “I have spent 14 years of my life as a criminal prosecutor. I have handled cases of murder and dismemberment ... how dare any member of this body say that I do not care for the victims of crime. And I know that there are people of good will on all sides of the issue, but how dare you?”
Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, spoke about the slaying of his girlfriend, Alison Parker, a reporter for WDBJ in Roanoke, and cameraman Adam Ward, who were shot to death during a live broadcast in 2015 by a man who later took his own life.
“Fortunately now I have been able to move forward in my life,” said Hurst, a former anchorperson at the station. He mentioned Rachel Sutphin, whose father was one of two law enforcement officers slain by William Morva — executed in 2017 — and who favors abolition of the death penalty.
Hurst said, “When the other side says we don’t care about victims, you come for me. When the other side says you don’t care about victims, you’re coming for Rachel.”
“I’m tired of the hand-wringing ... it’s time for Virginia to end the death penalty,” he said.
In the House, Del. Jeff Campbell, R-Smyth, and Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, were the only two Republicans to join the majority. Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, who voted earlier in favor of abolition legislation, voted against it Monday.
Michael Stone, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said, “Today’s final vote by the General Assembly to abolish capital punishment is a landmark in the history of Virginia. It is a repudiation of the legacy of 1,390 executions carried out by the commonwealth since 1608.”
“This vote continues the national move away from the death penalty. When the Governor signs the bill into law, Virginia will become the 11th state to abolish the use of executions in the past 15 years and the 23rd state overall,” Stone said.
Rob Lee, executive director of the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center and a lawyer for Porter and Juniper, said Monday that the two were aware of what was happening in the Virginia legislature, but they declined to comment.
“A direct line can be drawn from Virginia’s modern death penalty back to its history of racist lynchings,” Lee said. “By eliminating the death penalty, governmental, political and moral leaders have taken a long overdue action needed to make Virginia a fairer and more just Commonwealth.”