Crime and courts

Senate committee advances anti-death penalty bill

BY ISABEL MEYER

(CNS) – A key Senate committee voted 12-4 Tuesday morning to approve a bill that would abolish the death penalty in Virginia.

The bill, SB1165, now faces a potentially bitter partisan showdown on the Senate floor for a full vote.

Virginia is a prolific death penalty state, having executed ​more prisoners​ than any other state. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Virginia carried out the first execution in what is now the U.S in 1608 and has executed nearly 1,400 people since then.

The anti-death penalty bill was introduced by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, and the move for abolition is supported by Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, both of whom are also Democrats.

The bill would commute the sentences of those currently on death row from execution to mandatory life in prison with no chance of parole. This condition is a fundamental requirement for many in the legislature who expressed support to abolish the death penalty.

Legislation to abolish mandatory minimum sentences, like life in prison without parole for capital crimes, has been discussed in the Senate. The possibility of a future Virginia with no death penalty and no minimum sentence for capital crimes was a large point of contention at the Jan. 18 meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which advanced the bill in a 10-4 vote largely along party lines.

In this morning’s Finance and Appropriations Committee meeting, Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, asked Surovell what will happen to the two men on death row in Virginia.

“The bill would commute the two men who are currently on death row to life in prison without parole and that’s explicit in the enactment clause of the bill,” Surovell said.

Support for the bill was voiced in the hearing by Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, who voted yes on the bill.

“I’m confident that this bill would save money for the Commonwealth,” he said. He said it is very expensive for both prosecution and defense attorneys to litigate death penalty cases.

This was echoed by Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, who voted in favor of the bill.

“It will be a savings as opposed to the costs of all the litigation that goes into a death penalty case,” he said.

These savings also include expenditures related to lethal injection services and the capital defenders’ office. These funds would be reallocated in the budget if adopted by the full Senate.

“Administering this punishment is insanely expensive,” said Surovell to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 18. “Virginia right now spends $3.9 million on our capital defenders service every year and that does not include the cost we spend on expert witnesses, which are paid outside of that budget. It also does not monetize the amount of time that’s spent by prosecutors, attorneys general, judges, clerks, police officers, and jurors sitting, administering these types of sentences.”

Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, is one of the four committee members who voted against the bill.

“In trying to be objective about this otherwise unworthy bill, I would say I think it’s more of a policy discussion than a fiscal discussion,” he said.

Having passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Finance & Appropriations Committee, the path is now clear for the bill to reach the Senate for a full vote, which is not yet scheduled.

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