Virginia has moved closer to abolishing the death penalty in a watershed moment for the Southern state

  • Virginia is on the cusp of abolishing the death penalty.
  • The state legislature advanced similar bills that would end the practice.
  • Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to sign a final bill into law.
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With a key legislative vote on Friday, Virginia is on the cusp of abolishing the death penalty, a watershed moment for a state that long embraced the practice as an anti-crime deterrent.

The Democratic-controlled House of Delegates voted 57-41 to end the death penalty, with 54 Democrats and three Republicans backing the measure, according to The Richmond Times-Dispatch.

On Wednesday, the Democratic-controlled state Senate voted on a 21-17 party-line vote to approve a similar measure.

With Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam in support of an abolition bill, Virginia is set to join 22 other states that have ended capital punishment and become the first Southern state to end the practice.

Larry Sabato, a longtime political analyst at the University of Virginia, told The Richmond Times-Dispatch that for decades, such an action would have been difficult to imagine.

“In the 20th century, few would have thought this was likely to happen at all, much less that Virginia would be the first in the South to eliminate capital punishment,” he said. “It shows dramatically how different the new Virginia is from the old.”

Virginia has executed nearly 1,400 people since 1608 — with 113 of the killings occuring after the Supreme Court paved the way for executions to restart in 1976 as a result of Gregg v. Georgia, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

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Democratic state Delegate Mike Mullin, a prosecutor who introduced the House legislation, said having a death penalty creates the risk of errors.

“There are many arguments for why we should abolish the death penalty,” he said. “These arguments touch on everything from the moral implications of the death penalty, to the racial bias in how it is applied, to its ineffectiveness, to the extraordinary cost.”

He added: “Perhaps the strongest argument for abolishing the death penalty is that a justice system without the death penalty allows us the possibility of being wrong.”

In 1985, Earl Washington Jr. came within days of being executed for a rape and murder that he did not commit.

After spending 17 years in prison, with many of them on death row, Washington was released in 2001 after more extensive DNA testing, unavailable in earlier years, proved his innocence.

Republican Delegate Jason Miyares, a former prosecutor, defended the use of the death penalty for “worst of the worst” murderers and said that the victims and their loved ones have been largely sidelined in the debate.

“If there is one word to describe what happened to these victims, it is just cruelty — unimaginable cruelty on a scale that’s hard to even process,” he said. “They died with sheer terror on their hearts with people often taunting them.” 

He added: “It’s not vengeance, it’s justice.”

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