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Virginia moves closer to abolishing the death penalty

Posted at 12:29 AM, Jan 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-19 07:03:25-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Considered the ultimate punishment, the death penalty may soon no longer be an option for Virginia’s juries and prosecutors.

With a 10-4 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced S.B. 1165 on Monday.

One Republican joined nine Democrats to move the bill to the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee.

Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Mount Vernon) sponsored the bill that, if signed into law, would abolish the death penalty including for those currently under a death sentence.

Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Glade Hill) is the chief co-patron of the legislation.

'Death penalty is racist'

Albemarle Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Hingeley testified on Monday urging lawmakers to pass the bill.

He spent 44 years as a criminal defense lawyer and public defender before he was elected as top prosecutor in 2019.

“I represented four people charged with capital murder facing the death penalty. All of them were African American and that’s not coincidental. That’s how the death penalty is administered in Virginia. It’s racist,” Hingeley told CBS 6.

Hingeley ran on a criminal justice reform platform, which included eliminating the death penalty.

He’s one of 12 prosecutors who are members of the Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice.

“We make mistakes in deciding who should get the death penalty,” said Hingeley about innocent people who have been executed. “You can’t call them back from the grave to correct that error.”

The prosecutor argued that often a death penalty sentence leads to a delay in justice.

Some convictions can go through a decades-long appellate process, which could lead to a hearing with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hingeley joined other proponents of the legislation including the citizens’ organization, Virginians for Alternative to the Death Penalty (VADP).

Rev. Dr. LaKeisha Cook, a Baptist minister and ally from the Virginia Interfaith Center, believed the policy is a moral issue.

“As people of faith, we believe in human dignity. We believe in redemption. We believe in forgiveness,” Rev. Cook explained. “For people who commit those types of serious crimes life in prison without parole is the option we would like it to be.”

Last Fall, a nationwide Gallup poll showed 55 percent of Americans said they support the death penalty for a person convicted of murder. That support has fallen in recent years.

Virginia carried out the last execution in 2017. Most counties in the Commonwealth haven't executed a person in 50 years.

'Open season on law enforcement'

Opponents of the bill warned that it would lead to “an open season on law enforcement.”

Former State Sen. Bill Carrico (R-Bristol) was one of several individuals who spoke against Surovell’s bill.

“It doesn’t matter to me the color of your skin is. If you’re going to commit these crimes, then you should pay the penalty,” Carrico said following the meeting.

In 2019, Governor Ralph Northam signed Carrico’s bill that mandates anyone convicted of killing a law enforcement officer to receive life in prison or the death penalty.

Carrico said he was inspired to write the bill after Travis Ball received 36 years in prison for killing Virginia State Police Special Agent Michael Walter in 2017.

Gov. Northam has publicly supported the current bill to abolish the death penalty.

Carrico’s bill, which was widely supported by both Democrats and Republicans, may become slimmed down.

He’s hoping the language of the bill will change to include a carve-out exception for individuals convicted of murdering law enforcement.

“The only way to secure this state is that we punish criminals and we don’t let them get by with murder,” he said.