By Christina Amano Dolan
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — Virginia will become the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty after two bills passed both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly on Monday.
In a release issued earlier this month, Gov. Ralph Northam said he looks forward to signing a legislation that outlaws the death penalty.
Under current state law, an offender convicted of a Class 1 felony who is at least 18 years of age at the time of the offense and without an intellectual disability faces a sentence of life imprisonment or death.
The identical House and Senate bills eliminate death from the list of possible punishments for a Class 1 felony. The bills do not allow the possibility of parole, good conduct allowance or earned sentence credits. The measures will also reclassify capital murders to aggravated murders.
The move will change the sentence for the two remaining inmates on death row to life imprisonment without eligibility of parole, good conduct allowance or earned sentence credits.
House Bill 2263, introduced by Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, passed the Senate Monday on a 22-16 vote following a lengthy floor debate. While both parties reached an agreement on eliminating the death penalty, Republicans argued for a proposed amendment to remove the possibility of a shortened life sentence.
Under current state law, judges are able to suspend part of life sentences, with the exception of the murder of a law enforcement officer. Neither bill will change this policy.
In Monday’s hearing, Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, argued for a floor substitute that would replace capital murder charges with a mandatory minimum life sentence. The government should not have the ability to sentence people to death due to the possibility of false convictions, but those who commit “heinous” crimes should never face the possibility of parole, he said.
“If you kill multiple people, or under the circumstances under our death penalty statute, you should not see the light of day,” Stanley said. “You should not taste liberty and freedom again.”
Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the Senate bill that passed the House, said adopting Stanley’s amendment would introduce 14 new mandatory minimum life sentences.
“I think it’s awfully presumptuous for us to just decide that these 14 situations deserve this one and only punishment,” Surovell said.
Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey, D-Richmond, furthered the argument against the amendment by mentioning a Washington Post article on the recent release of Joe Ligon at age 83. Ligon was sentenced to life imprisonment at 15 years old, pleading guilty under the impression that he would be eligible for parole 10 years later, Morrissey said. He was released from prison after serving 68 years.
“That seems to be inconsistent,” Morrissey said, referring to Stanley’s argument that while juries can get it wrong, a convicted person sentenced to life imprisonment should never be able to seek parole. “If you get it wrong, and somebody is executed, you can also get it wrong when you sentence somebody to life in prison.”
Judges currently have the authority to ensure life sentences and will have the same authority with the bill’s passage, Surovell said.
The floor substitute by Stanley was rejected. The bill passed 57-43 with no amendments.
Concluding the hearing, Surovell offered final remarks on the importance of Virginia’s step to abolish the death penalty. He believes the new measure speaks to the commonwealth’s humility and value of human life.
“It says a lot about how our commonwealth is going to move past some of our darkest moments in terms of how this punishment was applied and who it was applied to,” Surovell said.
Surovell hopes that the measure’s passage will “send a message to the rest of the world that Virginia is back to leading on criminal justice.”
Northam; House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw issued a joint statement regarding the legislations’ passages.
“Thanks to the vote of lawmakers in both chambers, Virginia will join 22 other states that have ended use of the death penalty. This is an important step forward in ensuring that our criminal justice system is fair and equitable to all.”
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.