Virginia lawmakers vote to abolish the death penalty

Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (February 22, 2021) — State lawmakers gave final approval Monday to legislation that will end capital punishment in Virginia, a dramatic turnaround for a state that has executed more people in its long history than any other.

The legislation repealing the death penalty now heads to Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who has said he will sign it into law, making Virginia the 23rd state to stop executions.

Virginia's new Democratic majority, in full control of the General Assembly for a second year, pushed the repeal effort, arguing that the death penalty has been applied disproportionately to people of color, the mentally ill and the indigent.

Republicans raised concerns about justice for victims and their family members, and said there are some crimes that are so heinous that the perpetrators deserve to be executed.

Only two men remain on Virginia's death row. Anthony Juniper was sentenced to death in the 2004 slayings of his ex-girlfriend, two of her children, and her brother. Thomas Porter was sentenced to die for the 2005 killing of a Norfolk police officer. The repeal legislation would convert their sentences to life in prison without parole.

During the debate on the House floor Monday, Republican Del. Rob Bell described those killings in gruesome detail, and said Porter and Juniper would be watching the vote from prison with special interest.

Porter, Juniper and their families have declined to comment through their attorney, Rob Lee, executive director of the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center.

The passage of the legislation was just the latest in a long list of sweeping policy changes enacted by Democrats, who have increasingly reshaped the Old Dominion into an outlier in the South on racial, social and economic issues.

Last year, lawmakers passed some of the region's strictest gun laws, broadest LGBTQ protections, its highest minimum wage and some of its loosest abortion restrictions. This year too, lawmakers have been passing one progressive measure after another.

But the death penalty bill marks a particularly stark reversal in a state where executions proceeded in the past decade under both Republican and Democratic governors. The state legislature and state officials have also acted in recent years to preserve Virginia's ability to carry out executions and limit transparency around the process.

On Monday, both chambers approved separate but identical repeal bills. The Senate approved a House bill, advancing it to Northam on a 22-16 vote. Republican Sen. Jill Vogel joined with Democrats in the chamber in voting for passage. Later Monday, House Democrats and two GOP members, Del. Jeff Campbell and Del. Carrie Coyner, voted to approve the Senate version, 57-43.

No date has been set yet for when the governor will sign it, according to his spokeswoman.

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