BY BEN WASSERSTEIN
(CNS) – The House of Delegates voted 57-41 Feb. 5 to abolish the death penalty, clearing the way for the end of capital punishment in Virginia after more than 400 years and nearly 1,400 executions.
The largely party-line vote by the House came two days after the Senate also voted to end executions, and with Gov. Ralph Northam’s announced support to sign the bill do do so.
The bill, HB 2263, was introduced by Del. Michael P. Mullin, D-Newport News, and calls for the end of the death penalty including for those currently on death row.
Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, was one supporter of the bill. Levine, whose sister was murdered and her children kidnapped in 1996, stated that despite his feelings toward the fate of the murderer, he does not wish to bring death upon others, he said.
“Killing someone else doesn’t bring Janet back to me,” Levine said.
Levine said he was particularly concerned with the possibility of innocent people being executed.
“The state may end up killing innocent people,” Levine said. “We’ve heard that someone was eight days away, a perfectly innocent man, and we almost killed him, and I know from the Innocence Project that a number of innocent people have been murdered by the state.”
Del. Jerrauld Jones, D-Norfolk, was another supporter of the bill, citing his mother’s work as a prosecutor and the interlinkage of lynching and capital punishment in Virginia.
“The death penalty is the direct descendant of lynching,” Jones said. “It is state sponsored racism and we have an opportunity here to end this today and so I want to encourage everybody to support this bill so that future mothers don’t have to explain to their child who is eight years old why this practice is still in place, why we’re still perpetuating the Black codes and Jim Crow. This is a historic moment for Virginia. This is a historic moment for all of us.”
Among those who opposed the bill was Del. Robert Orrock Sr., R-Caroline. Orrock opposed the bill for allowing those incarcerated to seek parole years later, he said.
“If life in prison truly meant life in prison,” Orrock said. “I think I would consider this measure in a totally different light, an aspect we have seen in just the past few months, this past year individuals sentenced to life in prison got out. We see just this session a number of measures where parole will become easier for individuals to potentially achieve.”
Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, was also against the bill. In his argument, Miyares held up pictures of murder victims, urging members to think about the victims and the death penalty, not as revenge, but as justice, he said.
“It’s not vengeance,” Miyares said. “It’s justice. Justice for those who can no longer speak for themselves, justice for people whose last moments. We’re not surrounded by loved ones, but they were surrounded by terror, whose last moments was to see oftentimes their very loved ones, their most precious things in the world, brutally and systematically ripped from them and murdered right in front of their eyes in an act of abject cruelty. Do not forget the victims.”
Since 1973, 173 people have been exonerated from death row with a ratio of one exoneration per nine executions. This includes the case of Virginia native Earl Washington who served 16 years on death row before being exonerated in 2000.