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Virginia lawmakers debating future of mandatory minimum sentences

"When I first heard this was coming to the floor, I couldn't even breathe."
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Posted at 6:54 PM, Jan 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-20 06:55:29-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia state lawmakers are debating the future of mandatory minimum sentencing.

"When I first heard this was coming to the floor, I couldn't even breathe," said Vicki Johnson.

The Northern Virginia woman is intently focused on the discussions going on in the State Capitol this week involving possibly eliminating mandatory minimums.

"It's distressing and absolutely breaks my heart to even think that we're sitting at a table discussing it," said Johnson.

The mother is particularly interested in what happens in the General Assembly because of a day that changed her family's lives forever.

"February 27, 2000, was when a predator showed up in our neighborhood and abducted my daughter. She was only 13 years old,” explained Johnson.

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Vicki Johnson

Johnson’s daughter had been communicating online with someone she thought was a 14-year-old boy, but it was actually a 36-year-old man.

"He had her for over five and a half hours, during which time he brutally raped her, beat her, sodomized her, and when he was done with her, he put her back in his truck, drove her to a country road, and dropped her off," recalled Johnson.

Donald Lee Williams Jr., who has an extensive criminal record, would be sentenced to 87 years in prison with all but 14 years suspended for sex crimes against Johnson's daughter and another teen in Williamsburg.

He was released in 2013 but investigators say the now 57-year-old is now back in custody in Norfolk for attempting to victimize who he thought was another child in 2019.

He faces charges that if convicted, carry mandatory minimum sentences.

"Mandatory minimums really don't work very well, they tend to be over inclusive, and they don't take into account the specifics of a crime, or the specifics of the victim, or the individual circumstances that might have led someone to, commit the crime that they did,” said Sen. Scott Surovell (D-36th District).

Sen. Surovell and other members of the Virginia Crime Commission voted to endorse what is now Senate Bill 1443 sponsored by Senator John Edwards. It would eliminate 224 mandatory minimum sentences from the state code, excluding Class 1 felonies.

However, it includes multiple offenses against children, and it would allow some prisoners already serving mandatory sentences to petition the court to reconsider their sentence.

“It's just inconceivable that they would even consider allowing this to happen. because it's going to crush family upon family upon family who have fought to change the law so that justice can be served,” said Johnson.

"It says to victims, you don't matter. Over and over again we are seeing the criminals being treated as the victims by our colleagues in the Democratic party. They continue to go out of their way to treat criminals as their number one priority," said Del. Todd Gilbert (R-15th District).

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"The problem, the mandatory minimum sentences tend to insert the judgment of the state legislature in the place of a judge or what used to be a jury and, you know, in Virginia, we've always been a state that prides ourselves on Civil Rights,” said Sen. Surovell.

Vicki Johnson said her number one priority is to protect her family while they live out the life sentence, they didn't ask for 21 years ago.

“When he was sentenced, he said the last words leaving the courtroom was when I get out I’m going to find you and your daughter and I’m going to kill you because you’re the reason I got caught,” said Johnson. "It's never ending. It goes on for the rest of your life and I think that's the message we need to make. It's not seven years, or 14 years, or 87 years. It's basically changed our lives forever."

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