- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 2, 2021

The Democratic-controlled Virginia Senate opened debate Tuesday evening on legislation that would abolish the death penalty, after a new poll emerged showing that most Virginians disapprove of capital punishment.

Senators proposed several substitute amendments to the legislation introduced by Sen. Scott Surovell, Fairfax Democrat, and a vote on the bill was scheduled for Wednesday. If enacted, the legislation would make the commonwealth the first Southern state to ban the death penalty.

Sen. William Stanley, Moneta Republican, proposed an amendment that would abolish the death penalty but ensure that convictions for the worst offenses will invoke a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

“They [inmates] will dwell in our penitentiaries until the very last breath that they take it is fair and just but is also fair for the victims, as well,” Mr. Stanley said.

In addition to ending the death penalty, Mr. Surovell’s bill would commute the death sentences for the only two men currently on death row for capital murder — Anthony Juniper and Thomas Porter — to life in prison.

Christopher Newport University released a survey Tuesday that found 56% of registered Virginia voters support repealing the death penalty.

The data showed that support abolishing capital punishment fell along party lines, with 74% of Democrats backing the proposal and 64% of Republicans opposing it.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Virginia has executed about 1,400 people over the course of its history, with 113 occurring since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed capital punishment. Virginia’s tally since 1976 is second only to that of Texas, which has executed 570 inmates over the last 45 years.

However, executions have slowed in Virginia in recent years, and no death sentences have been imposed in the state since 2011. William Morva was the last inmate executed in the commonwealth, in 2017.

Twenty-two states have banned the death penalty.

Rachel Sutphin, whose father Montgomery County Sheriff’s Cpl. Eric Sutphin was shot and killed by Morva in 2006, has advocated for abolishing capital punishment in Virginia.

“I believe the death penalty is an ineffective and outdated measure that brings no solace to family members,” Ms. Sutphin told the Virginia Senate Judiciary Committee last month. “The state would better spend their time and their money providing resources for my family versus killing another person.”

On the other side, M. Wayne Huggins, executive director of the Virginia State Police Association, ardently objected to the bill at the same hearing, emphasizing his concern about certain convicts being released.

“Any person who will murder a police officer will murder any member of society and we think they ought to be dealt with the most harshly,” Mr. Huggins said.

Gov. Ralph Northam has backed ending the death penalty and vowed to sign a bill into law if the General Assembly approves one.

Advocates argue that the death penalty disproportionately affects minority communities. The ACLU says that people of color have accounted for 43% of all executions since 1976 and 55% of those currently on death row across the country.

In the House of Delegates, there are two bills — introduced by Democratic Delegates Lee Carter of Manassas Democrat, and Michael Mullin of James City County — that also would abolish the death penalty.

In other Senate action on Tuesday, the chamber passed legislation that would require every local school division to make both virtual and in-person learning available to students.

The measure was sponsored by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, Henrico Republican and a physician.

“We must open schools,” Ms. Dunnavant said, urging her colleagues to “listen to the science.”

She said there’s no evidence to support keeping children out of in-person school and warned that vulnerable children were being left behind.

The chamber approved the bill, which would not take effect until July 1, on a 26-13 bipartisan vote. But the measure’s chances in the state House are less certain.

At least one similar but more narrow bill aimed at students without adequate internet access failed during last year’s special legislative session.

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Gabriella Muñoz can be reached at gmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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