‘Virginia is back to leading on criminal justice’: State lawmakers react to move to get rid of death penalty

FILE — Virginia State Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, gestures as he addresses the members during the Senate session at the Science Museum in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

Virginia will become the 23rd U.S. state and first Southern state to abolish the death penalty after receiving a receptive governor’s signature.

“Over Virginia’s long history, this Commonwealth has executed more people than any other state. And, like many other states, Virginia has come too close to executing an innocent person,” reads a joint statement Monday from Gov. Ralph Northam, Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw. “It’s time we stop this machinery of death.”

State Sen. Scott Surovell, a Democrat who represents portions of Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties, sponsored the bill in the Virginia Senate.

Before the final vote that advances the measure to the governor’s desk, Surovell talked about Virginia’s earliest history leading the world on human rights and due process. Listen below.

Sen. Surovell: Va. led world on human rights, due process from its earliest history (WTOP's Kristi King)

“Virginia led the way in the world when it came to human rights and when it came to criminal justice,” Surovell said. “When we pass this bill, we will send the message to the rest of the world that Virginia is back to leading on criminal justice, not following — we’re going to be back out there in front.”

Two men on death row now will have their sentences converted to life without parole when the bill becomes law.

Surovell said the measure doesn’t directly impact a lot of people but represents the values of members of the commonwealth. “It says a lot about how we value human life and 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,” he said.

Virginia courts historically have had disproportionate numbers of low-income and minority defendants in death penalty cases.

By voting to abolish the death penalty, Virginia is creating a new legacy for itself, according to a statement from the bill’s sponsor in Virginia’s House. Del. Michael P. Mullin, D-Newport News, said, “Never again will the commonwealth run the risk of executing an innocent person.”

The Associated Press reported that Virginia’s use of the death penalty is second only to Texas since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated it in 1976.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been with working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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