RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia Senate passed a bill Wednesday that would abolish the death penalty, a measure that if passed into law would mark a major policy change for a state that over its centuries-long history has led the nation in the number of executions it has carried out.
The Democrat-controlled chamber approved the bill in a 21-17 vote that split along party lines and was seen as a key hurdle for the measure. Advocates now expect the House version of the bill to easily clear that chamber, and Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has said he supports the legislation.
Wednesday's vote followed a lengthy, emotional floor debate.
“I cannot think of anything that is more awful, unspeakable and wrong for a government to do than to use its power to execute somebody who didn’t commit the crime they’re accused of. The problem with capital punishment is that once it’s inflicted you can’t take it back, it can’t be corrected,” Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell, the bill’s sponsor, said as he introduced it.
Democrats raised concerns about the racial disparities in the application of the death penalty and pointed to research that shows it does not deter crime.
Republicans urged a "no" vote on the bill, saying it wouldn't give victims' families a chance at justice and voicing concerns that people convicted of heinous murders would be eligible for parole.
GOP Sen. Bill Stanley, who had initially co-patroned the measure, angrily spoke against it after Democrats a day earlier rejected attempts from Republicans to amend the bill, including changes Stanley proposed that he said would have guaranteed that people convicted of aggravated murder would never leave prison.
“This could have been coming out today as a bipartisan effort to end the death penalty. Instead it’s a party-line effort,” said Stanley, who also spoke about his personal opposition to capital punishment. He ultimately did not vote.
Republican Sen. Mark Obenshain acknowledged the “misapplications of capital punishment of decades and centuries past” but said that should not be a reason to do away with the death penalty entirely.
He described the brutal crimes committed by two men formerly on death row: Ivan Teleguz, convicted in 2006 of hiring a man to kill the mother of his child, and Ricky Gray, who was convicted of killing a family of four, slashing their throats and setting their home ablaze in 2006. Teleguz had his sentence commuted to life without parole in 2017; Gray was executed the same year.
“These are savage crimes. These are the worst of the worst,” he said.
Democrat Janet Howell said she used to be a “fervent” supporter of the death penalty, a position that changed after the murder of her father-in-law. She described in emotional testimony how his killing affected her family and how they found themselves in disagreement over the death penalty and the punishment her father-in-law's killer should face.
“I don’t buy the idea that we would support the death penalty for the benefit of victims' families. It doesn’t work that way. Trust me, it doesn’t work that way,” she said.
Virginia has executed nearly 1,400 people in more than four centuries, more than any other state, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In modern times, Virginia is second only to Texas in the number of executions since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
But executions have slowed in Virginia in recent years — the last inmate put to death was William Morva in 2017 — and no death sentences have been imposed in the state since 2011.
Only two men remain on death row. The Senate bill would commute their sentences to life without parole.
Democratic Del. Mike Mullin, who is a prosecutor, is carrying the House version of the legislation. It advanced out of a committee Wednesday on a bipartisan vote of 15-6 with one abstention.
If the bill is passed into law, Virginia would become the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty, according to a recent report from the Death Penalty Information Center.
Northam said in a statement that it was time for Virginia to take that step.
“I applaud every Senator who cast a courageous vote today, and I look forward to signing this bill into law,” he said.