Bill to eliminate Va. death penalty advances; cost savings debated

Eliminating the death penalty in Virginia would cost the commonwealth about $77,000 to house and feed two current death row inmates, but free up almost $4 million yearly by eliminating the state’s Capital Defender Service, which represents defendants in cases eligible for the death penalty.

Virginia Senate Bill 1165 was approved Tuesday by the Finance and Appropriations Committee by a vote of 12-4.

The measure was introduced by Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell, who represents portions of Fairfax, Prince William, and Stafford counties.

Surovell focused on the financial impact rather than the philosophical and legal aspects of eliminating capital punishment, which would require commuting the sentences of two inmates currently on death row.

“It theoretically causes a $77,000 fiscal impact to the state for having to feed and house two individuals for the rest of their life,” he said. In the long term, “the state currently pays $3.9 million a year for 29 employees in the Capital Defender Service.”

The Capital Defender Service is part of the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission, which consists of court-appointed public defenders who protect the Constitutional rights of people who can’t afford to hire lawyers.

Currently, defendants charged with crimes that make them eligible for the death penalty are afforded a capital defender, who is skilled in the intricacies of defending a life-or-death case.

Sen. Richard Saslaw, of Fairfax County, who has long been a supporter of capital punishment for serial murders, asked Surovell, “This doesn’t do away with life without possibility of parole for certain murderers, does it?”

“No,” answered Surovell. “The bill would commute the two men who are currently on death row to life in prison without parole, and that’s explicit in the enactment clause of the bill.”

Republican Sen. Thomas Norment, who represents Williamsburg region, opposed the idea.

“I’m trying to be objective about this otherwise unworthy bill — I think that’s more of a policy discussion than a fiscal one,” he said.

In supporting the bill, Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat, said, “I always figured abolishing the death penalty would save money.”

However, fellow Democrat Sen. David Marsden, who has experience overseeing the state’s juvenile justice system, said despite estimates of annual savings of more than $30,000 from housing and feeding inmates in that system, the actual savings was “somewhere in the $6,000 or $7,000 range.”

“We’re not saving as much as one would think on a death row prisoner,” Marsden said. “It will be a savings, as opposed to all of the litigation that goes into a death penalty case.”

In changing the Virginia code, Surovell said “capital murder” would be changed to “aggravated murder”. If the bill passes, future Class 1 felony convictions would have a maximum possible sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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