The Virginia House and Senate have both approved landmark legislation to abolish the death penalty in the commonwealth and Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam says he plans to sign the bill into law once it reaches his desk.
Before that happens, lawmakers still have to work out a disagreement about whether people sentenced to life in prison instead of death could be eligible for parole.
Two Republicans voted with Democrats in favor of abolition, but the party has been largely unified in opposition. One Republican Senator, Bill Stanley, co-sponsored the bill but abstained from voting. His support was conditional on a proposal to make people convicted of murder ineligible for parole after their death sentence was commuted.
Democrats couldn’t agree to make that change.
Opponents of the death penalty cite the high cost, the possibility of executing the innocent, and the disproportionate racial impact. Almost half of the people Virginia executes are Black, although Black residents only account for roughly 20% of the state’s population.
Del. Jay Jones, a Democrat, spoke to that last concern, remembering a conversation he had with his mother about her efforts to defend a man on death row.
“She said, ‘Jay, I’m trying to keep a man from getting lynched by the state,’ ” Jones said. “The death penalty is the direct descendant of lynching. It is state-sponsored racism. And we have an opportunity to end this today.”
Republican Del. Jason Miyares spoke in support of the death penalty. “Today in this commonwealth, we live under laws that are established for the common good,” Miyares said.