Northern Virginia prosecutors push to abolish death penalty

Almost 20 years ago, the U.S. Justice Department determined Beltway snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo would go on trial in Prince William and Fairfax counties first, because that was where they stood the best chance of getting the death penalty.

Now, 12 Virginia commonwealth’s attorneys — including those from Prince William, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Arlington counties, and the City of Alexandria — have signed a letter calling on the General Assembly to abolish the death penalty in Virginia as part of criminal justice reforms during the upcoming legislative session.

In the letter, the group called the death penalty “unjust, racially biased and ineffective at deterring crime,” and said it is time for Virginia to end this “antiquated practice.”

Prosecutors signing the letter included Amy Ashworth, of Prince William County and the City of Manassas, Buta Biberaj, of Loudoun County, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, of Arlington County and the City of Falls Church, Steve Descano, of Fairfax County and the City of Fairfax, and Bryan Porter, of the City of Alexandria.

Ashworth is in her first term of office, after the retirement of Paul Ebert, who between the years of 1968 and 2019, sent more killers to death row — including sniper Muhammad — than any other prosecutor in Virginia. Malvo is serving life in prison.

Ashworth has said the millions of dollars spent by the state prosecuting capital cases could be better spent preventing and deterring crime.

Also signing were prosecutors from the City of Charlottesville, Albemarle and Henrico counties, as well as the cities of Norfolk, Hampton, Newport News and Portsmouth.

In addition to banning capital punishment, The Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice, or VPPFJ, want an end to mandatory minimum sentences, an end to cash bail, an end to the “three strikes” felony enhancement for larceny offenses and the automatic and free expungement of criminal records.

The group said that too often a persistent criminal record prevents those who have been in the system from finding jobs, getting a house and pursuing an education, “long after they have proven to no longer pose a risk to the community.”

Mandatory minimum sentences prevent a judge from taking an individualized approach to each sentence, the group said.

“They lead to irrationally lengthy prison sentences that lead to mass incarceration, while exacerbating … racial and socioeconomic inequities.”

Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano said last week that his office will stop using mandatory minimum sentences in plea deals.

“We can do so much to eradicate mass incarceration, but we actually do need help from the General Assembly,” Descano said.

Descano’s office will also stop seeking cash bail, explaining that he believes it creates a two-tiered system of justice — one for the rich and one for everybody else. And, he said that Black and brown Virginians “bear the brunt of that injustice.”

Those who cannot afford to post bail are behind bars while waiting for trial, and they face consequences, such as job loss or even custody of their children, VPPFJ said.

The members of the group are recommending that Virginia rely on its comprehensive pretrial services to determine supervision and pretrial release. They want an increased investment in these services, as well as social services and support networks.

They also said that the “three strikes” felony enhancement is “senselessly punitive” and fuels mass incarceration.

“The collateral consequences associated with felonies far exceed those of misdemeanors,” their letter said.

The jurisdictions represent 40% of Virginia’s population, according to the letter.

The Virginia General Assembly convenes on Jan. 13.

WTOP’s Neal Augenstein contributed to this report.

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