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., on December 10. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo
Feb. 22 (UPI) -- Virginia lawmakers gave final approval Monday to two bills to abolish the death penalty, sending them to Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who is expected to sign them.
The state Senate voted 22 to 16 to approve House Bill 2263, and the House of Delegates voted 57 to 43 to approve the Senate Bill 1165, The Washington Post reported.
The bills, which are identical, would ban the death penalty, establish a maximum penalty of life in prison without the possibility of parole and give judges discretion to suspend part of sentences.
"Over Virginia's long history, this commonwealth has executed more people than any other state," Northam in a joint statement with House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw. "And, like many other states, Virginia has come too close to executing an innocent person. It's time we stop this machinery of death.
"With final passage in the Virginia House and Senate, our commonwealth will soon join 22 states in abolishing the death penalty -- an important step in ensuring our criminal justice system is fair and equitable."
Sen. William Stanley Jr., R-Franklin, who had co-sponsored the Senate bill along with Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, abstained from voting on the House bill after an effort to change it to ensure that those convicted of aggravated murder would never be eligible for parole or early release.
Only one Senate Republican, Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier, joined Democrats in approving the legislation.
In the House, two Republicans joined Democrats in approving the legislation.
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, criticized Democrats, saying they have yet to show "even a little bit of concern for victims of crime. That should concern every Virginian."
His comments provoked a response from Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, whose girlfriend Alison Parker was gunned down on live television five years ago.
"We are not a nation of emotions," Hurst said. "We do not need to be a society that determines that there should be an eye for an eye."
Once the bills are signed, Virginia will be the first former Confederate state to abolish the death penalty.
Equal Justice USA, a criminal justice reform organization, in a tweet, called the death penalty "a modern-day extension of lynching that magnifies the racism that permeates every aspect of our current criminal justice system."
Shari Silberstein, executive director of Equal Justice USA previously said that Virginia's efforts to abolish the death penalty demonstrate "what must be done to reckon with our justice system's deep-rooted racism."