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How state lawmaker who called death penalty 'profoundly racist' helped kill the punishment

Posted at 5:01 PM, Feb 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-23 17:02:06-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- In a historic vote on Monday, the Virginia General Assembly voted to abolish the death penalty.

With Virginia Governor Ralph Northam's signature, Virginia will become the first southern state to do away with capital punishment.

Virginia will join 22 other states that have ended state-sanctioned executions.

Delegate Mike Mullin (D - Newport News) and Senator Scott Surovell (D - Fairfax) carried the identical bills strongly supported by Governor Northam.

The bills passed 57-42 in the House of Delegates and 22-16 in the Senate.

"We've executed nearly 1,400 people in our 408-year history," Del. Mullin said. "That's a lot of blood on our hands."

Mullin said Virginia has executed 113 people since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed death penalty cases to resume.

Texas is the only state to exceed that number.

Mullin, a Hampton prosecutor, called the practice of capital punishment a "profoundly racist institution."

He argued before fellow delegates the case of Earl Washington Jr., wrongfully convicted of a 1982 rape and murder in Culpeper.

Washington was exonerated just nine days from his execution date.

"There have been 140 people who have been exonerated while on death row, just since 1973," Mullin said. "It wasn't until 1997 that a white man was executed for killing a Black man."

The legislation will make 15 capital punishment crimes now aggravated murder punishable by a life sentence.

Some opponents of the legislation were discouraged that an amendment was killed that would have made all capital murder cases a true life sentence.

The current law and new proposed law allow judges to suspend life sentences, except for cases involving the death of an active-duty police officer.

Other opponents, including House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, accused Democratic lawmakers of being insensitive to victims of capital crimes and their family members.

Two men now sit on death row in Virginia.

Once legislation is signed by the Governor, their sentences will be reduced to life without the possibility of parole.

Anthony Juniper, 49, was sentenced for the 2004 murders of Keshia Stephens, her brother Rueben Harrison III, and two of her daughters, Nykia Stephens, 4 and Sharyia Stephens, 2.

Thomas Alexander Porter, 45, was sentenced to death for the 2005 capital murder of Norfolk Police Officer Stanely Reaves.

As a prosecutor, Mullin said he understood the devastation caused to families by "heinous acts." He said justice can still be served for criminals who commit capital murder.

"Today is an emotional day," Mullin said. "I'm not saying these people were good. I'm not saying you should like them; I'm just saying that maybe we need a little less death in this world."