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Death penalty abolition legislation ready for Virginia governor's signature

Death penalty abolition legislation ready for Virginia governor's signature

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The execution table at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt. Photo taken Dec. 20, 1994.

Virginia is just an historic signature away from eliminating the death penalty after sometimes emotional debate in the General Assembly on Monday.

In 22-16 and 57-42 votes, largely along party lines, the Virginia Senate and House, respectively, passed identical death penalty abolition bills backed by Gov. Ralph Northam, to end centuries of capital punishment in Virginia that has led to nearly 1,400 executions since 1608.

"Over Virginia’s long history, this Commonwealth has executed more people than any other state. And, like many other states, Virginia has come too close to executing an innocent person. It’s time we stop this machinery of death," said Northam and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate in a prepared statement.

Virginia will become the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty and join 22 other states that do not have capital punishment. 

Virginia has also executed 113 people in modern times, the second most among states, since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume in 1976.

The identical bills, HB2263 and SB1165, were introduced by Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, and Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax. The legislation will make the 15 kinds of crimes that are now capital murder - punishable by death or life in prison without parole - aggravated murder punishable by life in prison.

However, in current law and under the new law, a judge, except in the case of the murder of a police officer in the line of duty, can still sentence someone to a sentence less than life - something that rarely has happened.

The Senate on Monday rejected, for the second time, an amendment by Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, who opposes the death penalty, that would mean that all 15 types of capital murder - not just the murder of a police officer - would require true life sentences.

Stanley argued he wanted to vote for abolition - as did some other Republicans -  if the public could be assured that persons convicted of such heinous crimes are never released. Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier, was the only Republican voting for abolition in the Senate.

In the House, Del. Jeff Campbell, R-Smyth, and Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, were the only two Republicans to join the majority. Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, who voted earlier in favor of abolition legislation, voted against it Monday.

The legislation means the two men remaining on Virginia's death row will serve life in prison without parole and not be executed.

One is Thomas Alexander Porter, 45, sentenced to death for the 2005 capital murder of Stanley Reaves, an officer with the Norfolk Police Department. The other is Anthony B. Juniper, 49, sentenced to death for the 2004 capital murders of Keshia Stephens; her brother Rueben Harrison III; and two of her daughters, Nykia Stephens, 4, and Shearyia Stephens, 2.

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