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Shift in attitudes pushing lawmakers to abolish death penalty in Virginia

Demonstrators with the group Death Penalty Action participate in a protest against the death penalty at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., in December. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
Demonstrators with the group Death Penalty Action participate in a protest against the death penalty at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., in December. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 2 (UPI) -- The Virginia Senate is expected to vote this week on a bill that seeks to abolish the death penalty and make it the 23rd state to ban capital punishment.

In addition to outlawing the practice, Senate Bill 1165 would also automatically commute the death sentences of two men on death row to life imprisonment.

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Committees in Virginia's Senate and House of Delegates last week advanced the legislation to the full chambers for debate and a vote.

Sen. Scott Surovell, who introduced the bill in the Senate, said he's "optimistic" about it passing. He said he's introduced similar bills to abolish or limit the use of the death penalty in Virginia in the past, but with Democrats gaining control of the entire General Assembly in the 2019 election, he believes there's enough support for it to pass.

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Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, called for the repeal of the death penalty during his State of the Commonwealth address last month.

"It's time to change the law and end the death penalty in Virginia," Northam said. "We're taking these actions because we value people, and because we believe in treating people equitably. That matters in policy, and it matters in symbols."

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Surovell said he believes Northam's speech "made the difference" with one or two Democratic senators who may have been considering voting against the legislation.

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"It's always nice to have gubernatorial support for your concepts," Surovell told UPI.

As of Friday, senators had introduced two amendments -- one to increase the minimum punishment for other felonies and another to mostly abolish the death penalty, but keep it as a mandatory sentence for cases involving the intentional killing of a police officer or multiple victims.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, called mandatory death sentences "very, very unconstitutional."

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Dunham, too, feels optimistic about Virginia's chances to abolish the death penalty -- pointing to Northam's past support, as well as a coalition of prosecuting attorneys who wrote a letter advocating for the legislation.

He added that no Virginia governor has ever openly campaigned to abolish the death penalty.

"Virginia has moved from a red state to a purple state to what is appearing more and more like a blue state," he said in an interview with UPI.

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Dunham said the death penalty is particularly vulnerable to repeal in Virginia amid the state's growing calls for racial justice and a movement toward being "smart on crime rather than tough on crime."

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"The relationship between slavery, lynching, Jim Crow and the death penalty in Virginia is inescapable," he said.

"Virginia has executed more people than any other state -- more than 1,300 people," Northam said in his State of the Commonwealth address last month. "And here's another truth: A person is more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death when the victim is White, than when the victim is Black." File Photo by Pete Marovich/UPI

If lawmakers are able to reach across the aisle and use the repeal of the death penalty as a "vehicle for racial hearing" and for Virginia to "come to grips" with its past, Dunham said, "We may see abolitionists here."

Surovell said racial injustice is a key reason why he supports abolishing the death penalty in Virginia.

A DPIC report in September said that, at the time, 34 of the 57 people on federal death row were people of color -- about 60% -- while persons of color make up less than a quarter of the general U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Further, the report cited an analysis that found killers of White victims were more likely to face capital prosecution than killers of Black victims.

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Surovell also called the use of the death penalty "insanely expensive," pointing to the nearly $4 million annual price tag for Virginia's capital defender service to represent the condemned.

He said the United States as a whole is increasingly becoming out of touch with the greater global attitude toward the death penalty. It's one of few developed countries that still uses what he calls "the medieval practice."

"We're standing with Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, North Korea, China, for a while [ISIS]," Surovell said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. "These aren't the justice systems Americans aspire to."

Indeed, support for the death penalty in the United States has waned in recent decades.

A Gallup poll in November found that 55% of Americans favor executing criminals convicted of murder, its lowest point since 1972.

Twenty-two states have abolished the death penalty -- including Colorado last year -- and three have moratoriums on the practice. President Joe Biden has promised to work toward repeal at the federal level.

Dunham said that even in states that still execute inmates, fewer jurisdictions are actually handing out death sentences. DPIC data indicate that about half of all prisoners on death row are concentrated in 1.2% of all U.S. counties, down from 2% seven years ago.

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"The death penalty is becoming more and more a product of a few isolated jurisdictions, and as voters on the local level insist on criminal legal reform, the counties that persist in over-pursuing the death penalty shine a light on themselves," Dunham said.

"Prosecutors who over-pursue harsh punishments now are becoming politically vulnerable. It's no longer a badge of honor to say how many people you sent to death row; it makes you a target."

The Virginia Senate was originally scheduled to hold both second and third readings of the death penalty bill and then vote on the measure Tuesday. Surovell announced on Twitter late Tuesday that the vote was being pushed to Wednesday due to the crowded calendar.

The House of Delegates is expected to follow suit with a companion bill, HB 2263, by the end of this week.

If both are approved, the chambers must reconcile a final bill before it can be sent to Northam's desk.

It won't be a slam dunk in either chamber. A number of Republicans oppose the measure, including Senate Republican leader Tommy Norment, who voted against advancing the bill out of committee last week.

"In trying to be objective about this otherwise unworthy bill, I would say I think it's more of a policy discussion than a fiscal discussion," he said at the time.

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Republican Sen. William Stanley, though, favors the bill and has called for mandatory minimum sentences for the worst of offenders.

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