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Virginia lawmakers vote to abolish the death penalty

RICHMOND, Va. State lawmakers gave final approval Monday to legislation that would end the death penalty in Virginia, a dramatic turnaround for a state that has executed more people in its long history than any other. Legislation abolishing the death penalty is now being addressed to Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who has said he will sign it into law, making Virginia the 23rd state to ban executions. It makes sense that it is time to end this outdated practice that tends to do more harm to the victims’ family members than to provide us with any comfort or relief, said Rachel Sutphin, whose father, Cpl. Eric Sutphin, was shot dead in 2006 while working for the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office. William Morva, the man convicted of Eric Sutphin’s murder, was executed in 2017. Two years later, Rachel Sutphin was one of 13 family members of the murder victims who sent a letter to the General Assembly demanding that lawmakers remove the death penalty. By voting for repeal, we are showing the way, if Virginia is the state with the longest history and more people executed if we can do it, so can other states, said Rachel Sutphin. Virginia’s new Democratic majority, in full control of the General Assembly for a second year, postponed the repeal attempt, arguing that the death penalty was disproportionately applied to people of color, the mentally ill, and the poor. “It’s essential for our criminal justice system to function properly and to punish people equally. We all know that the death penalty does not do that. House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw said in a joint statement after the vote that Republicans raised concerns about justice for victims and their family members and said there were some crimes so hated that the perpetrators deserve to be executed.Only two men remain on death row in Virginia.Anthony Juniper was sentenced to death in the murders of his ex-girlfriend, two of her children and her brother.Thomas Porter was sentenced to death for the murder of a Norfolk police officer in 2005. Repeal legislation would commute their sentences to life imprisonment without parole.During the House debate Monday, Republican Del Del Rob Be ll described those killings in horrific detail and said Porter and Juniper would watch the vote from pri boy of special interest. We have five virgins dead that this bill will ensure that their killers will not get justice, Bell said. Porter, Juniper and their families declined to comment through their attorney, Rob Lee, executive director of the Virginia Resource Center. By eliminating the death penalty, government, political and moral leaders have taken a belated move to make Virginia a fairer and fairer Commonwealth, Lee said in a statement. The passage of the legislation was just the latest in a long list of sweeping policy changes adopted by Democrats, who have increasingly reshaped the Old Dominion to the extreme in the South on racial, social and economic issues. Last year, lawmakers passed some of the region’s toughest gun laws, broader LGBTQ protections, higher minimum wage and some of the cheapest abortion restrictions. This year, too, lawmakers have passed one progressive measure after another. But the death penalty bill marks a particularly severe upheaval in a state where executions continued in the past decade under both Republican and Democratic governors. The state legislature and state officials have also acted in recent years to preserve Virginia’s ability to carry out executions and limit transparency around the process. Even last year, the bills of abolishing the death penalty in the General Assembly went nowhere. On Monday, both chambers approved separate repealing but identical bills. The Senate passed a House bill, bringing it to Northam in a 22-16 vote. Republican Sen. Jill Vogel joined Democrats in the House in voting for the passage. Later Monday, House Democrats and two GOP members, Del Jeff Campbell and Del Carrie Coyner, voted to pass the Senate version, 57-43. No date has yet been set for the governor to sign it, according to his spokesman. Historically, Virginia has used the death penalty more than any other state, executing nearly 1,400 people since its days as a colony, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, Virginia, with 113 executions, is second only to Texas. Michael Stone, Virginians executive director for the Death Penalty Alternatives, called the vote to abolish the death penalty a landmark in the state’s history. We hope Virginia sets an example for other states from the old Confederation to take this bold step toward human reform of our legal justice system, Stone said. Denise Lavoie and Sarah Rankin, Associated Press

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