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Virginia's House votes to ban death penalty

Support for the death penalty in the United States has waned in recent decades. File Photo by Doug Smith/FDOC/Wikimedia Commons
Support for the death penalty in the United States has waned in recent decades. File Photo by Doug Smith/FDOC/Wikimedia Commons

Feb. 5 (UPI) -- Virginia's House of Delegates voted Friday in favor of abolishing the death penalty, giving the legislation support from the full legislature.

The chamber voted 57-41 in bipartisan support of HB 2263. The state Senate approved its version of the ban by a vote of 21-17 on Wednesday, but both chambers must vote again on the measure before it can be sent to Gov. Ralph Northam's desk.

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Northam gave his support to abolishing the death penalty in his annual state of the state address earlier this year. With his signature, Virginia would become the 23rd state in the country to repeal the death penalty.

Delegate Lee Carter, a Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, said that though the legislation's not yet official, "we've cleared the hurdles."

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"The state which has executed the most people, will kill no more," he tweeted.

Shari Shilberstein, executive director for Equal Justice USA, a criminal justice reform organization, said the bill's passage does more than to sound "the death penalty's demise."

"The commonwealth is about to become the first former Confederate state to repeal the death penalty, showing the nation what must be done to reckon with our justice system's deep-rooted racism," she said.

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The House debated the legislation Thursday, with Democratic Delegate Kathleen Murphy citing her own brother's murder.

"I will vote yes to end the death penalty, not because I think those men who killed my brother should ever be able to see the light of day," she said. "I don't believe that by committing murder ourselves, that we are accomplishing the goal that we should be."

And though the bill had bipartisan support, Republican Delegate Jason Miyares argued that the death penalty should be kept for the victims.

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"That seems to be absent from these discussions," he said. "The ultimate crime, with all of the constitutional protections we can afford, deserves the ultimate punishment."

Republican Delegates Carrie Coyner, Roxann Robinson and Jeff Campbell voted along with Democrats, reflecting a growing support for repeal nationwide.

"Republican Virginia lawmakers who did not vote to end the death penalty are out of step with the large number of GOP legislators around the country who have been voting for and even sponsoring repeal bills in recent years," said Hannah Cox, senior national manager for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.

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"Virginia's death penalty is a relic of the past, a failed public policy that wastes resources, kills innocent people, and fails to make the public safer."

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Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the death penalty was 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."

"The relationship between slavery, lynching, Jim Crow and the death penalty in Virginia is inescapable," he told UPI last week.

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.

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.



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