Virginia Senate Approves Measure to Abolish State’s Death Penalty

February 4, 2021 Updated: February 4, 2021

Virginia’s Senate approved a bill on Feb. 3 that would make Virginia the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty if the measure becomes law.

The 21–17 vote in the Democratic-majority chamber was split along party lines, with 21 Democrats for and 17 Republicans against the measure. One lawmaker, Republican state Sen. Bill Stanley, abstained.

The bill, SB 1165, sponsored by state Sen. Scott Surovell, a Democrat, now awaits the approval of Gov. Ralph Northam, also a Democrat; Northam has said he supports the legislation.

The House of Delegates approved its version of the legislation, HB 2263. 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. The Senate and House bills will need to reconcile the provision before Northam can sign off on the measure.

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

“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.”

Virginia has executed more people than any other state, with 1,391 executions in total, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. 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 Feb. 3 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 doesn’t 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 opposed 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, the AP reported.

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, WAVY.com reported.

President Joe Biden’s 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.

Follow Mimi on Twitter: @MimiNguyenLy