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Virginia governor signs historic bill abolishing death penalty into law

After centuries of carrying out executions, Virginia on Wednesday became the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty after Gov. Ralph Northam signed historic legislation into law that ends capital punishment in the commonwealth.

“We can’t give out the ultimate punishment without being 100% sure that we’re right. And we can’t sentence people to that ultimate punishment knowing that the system doesn’t work the same for everyone,” Northam, a Democrat, said ahead of signing the legislation at the Greensville Correctional Center, which houses Virginia’s death chamber.

With Northam’s signature, Virginia became the first Southern state to repeal the death penalty since the US Supreme Court reinstated the punishment in 1976. The new law, set to go into effect in July, comes as a major shift for Virginia, which has put to death more people in its history than any other state.

Two inmates currently on death row in Virginia will have their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment.

“Make no mistake, if you commit the most serious of crimes, you will be punished. But Virginia can do that without continuing a system that gets it wrong even once,” Northam said.

The governor cited the case of Earl Washington Jr., a Black man who was sentenced to death in Virginia in 1984 and exonerated in 2000 by DNA evidence. “While Mr. Washington is the only person we know of rescued from Virginia’s death row, can we really, truly be sure that there aren’t others?” Northam asked.

Before signing the legislation, the governor toured the correctional center and execution chamber Wednesday, which he described as a “powerful” experience that will stay with him and “reinforced to me that signing this new law is the right thing to do.”

Charged debate

The debate in the Virginia state Legislature over ending the death penalty had been emotionally charged as Democrats pointed to wrongful convictions and racial disparities in applying capital punishment. Some Republicans, meanwhile, argued that the death penalty provides justice for the victims of the most heinous crimes and their families.

Virginia lawmakers ultimately passed the legislation on near party-line votes in February during the special session.

During debate, Democratic Del. Mike Mullin, the House bill’s sponsor, and other supporters of the measure had argued that the death penalty should be abolished because it “is immoral, racially biased, ineffective and costly.”

“I agree, there are horrible people in the world, but what do you say to the last person who was wrongfully executed? What do you say to the family of an innocent man that we put to death?” Mullin, who is also a criminal prosecutor in Virginia, told CNN in an interview Tuesday.

Mullin told CNN he would have loved to have seen more bipartisan support but that he doesn’t “begrudge a single person their thoughts, their emotions and their votes on this.”

“I don’t think that anyone was being flippant or anything less than very thoughtful in how they spoke about the issue and how they voted,” he said, adding that the debate among lawmakers was “respectful.”

GOP state Sen. William Stanley, who had initially signed on as an original co-sponsor of the bill, ultimately withdrew his support along with other Republican lawmakers because the measure was not amended to include a mandatory minimum life sentence for aggravated murder without the possibility of parole.

Stanley, who abstained from the final vote on the legislation, told CNN last month that he wished there had been more collaboration among parties and that the Legislature had taken gentle steps toward the right result, rather than what he saw as a drastic shock to the system.

Victims’ families remain divided

During a Senate committee hearing on the bill in January, Angela Kyle — the daughter of Virginia State Trooper Leo Whitt, who was shot to death in 1985 — said she had wondered for many years whether she’d feel better if her father’s killer, Gregory Beaver, were executed.

When Beaver was executed for the killing in 1996, Kyle said an “amazing load went off. My nightmares stopped.”

“We talk about second chances. Some people’s second chances are how they spend their last days on death row. (Beaver) had a chance to talk to his creator … and my dad did not get that chance. His life was stopped,” said Kyle, who argued for the death penalty to be applied to certain cases.

Kyle told lawmakers, “I can’t begin to tell you what it was like, what it’s been like for 36 years to not have my dad, and not to have my family know my dad, and the amazing gap that’s been left without him.”

But Rachel Sutphin, whose father, Cpl. Eric Sutphin, was killed in 2006 by William Morva, the last man executed by Virginia in 2017, testified during the hearing that the death penalty is an “ineffective and outdated measure that brings no solace to family members.”

“The state would better spend their time and their money providing resources for my family versus killing another person,” she said.

Virginia has executed more than 1,300 people since the Jamestown colony’s first recorded execution in 1608, for espionage, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. After the US Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, effectively lifting a moratorium, Virginia carried out 113 executions — second only to Texas.

Article Topic Follows: National Politics

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