Gov. Ralph Northam will be introducing a bill to abolish the death penalty that, if successful, would make Virginia the first Southern state to end capital punishment.
“I understand about timing and I suspect this is the year to end the death penalty in Virginia,” Northam told the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Tuesday.
“I’ve felt strongly about this for a long time,” the governor said. “We’ve been doing so much good work on equity, especially criminal justice reform, and we have the majority in the House and the Senate.”
Although abolition bills have been introduced in the General Assembly frequently in recent decades, this appears to be the first time one will be introduced by a governor. This year’s regular session begins Wednesday.
Virginia has conducted 113 executions since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume in 1976, a toll second in the country only to Texas with 570. Since 1608, there have been nearly 1,300 executions in Virginia, the most in the country.
However, no one has been sentenced to death in Virginia since 2011, or executed since 2017.
And the state’s death row, which once hovered around 50, is now down to two men, both sentenced to death in Norfolk, who will have their sentences changed to life in prison without the possibility of parole if the bill becomes law.
Northam has said that while he opposes the death penalty, he was prepared to uphold Virginia’s laws including capital punishment. But he said Tuesday that at this stage in their appeals, neither man would be facing execution during his term.
“This bill would affect future governors, probably, more than it would me,” Northam said. He noted that no one had been sentenced to death in the state in nine years. “But, we need to take a permanent step — that’s what this is about, to end this in Virginia regardless of who is governor.”
Northam referenced the 10 federal executions carried out by the administration of President Donald Trump last year after a 17-year hiatus on federal executions.
On Tuesday, a federal judge in Washington issued a stay in two executions set for this week, including for Cory Johnson, 52, who was sentenced to death for seven 1992 murders in Richmond.
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., wrote in a text message Tuesday: “Since Virginia has been a leader in executions, abolishing the death penalty here will also send a powerful abolition message across the country and world.”
Kaine, a former governor, said he strongly supports Northam’s effort to end capital punishment in the state.
“I am trying to do the same at the federal level. We don’t need the death penalty to fight crime. Instead, the death penalty has been applied in a manifestly racist way throughout our history,” Kaine wrote.
One of the two men remaining on Virginia’s death row 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.
Northam said Tuesday that he was not prepared to comment on what should or should not be said to the survivors of the victims in the Norfolk cases, who may believe the death penalty is warranted.
“But, I think it’s fair to say we always have to be respectful of victims’ families,” he said. “I think it’s well known, in a lot of cases ... the family members of the victims actually have been the ones who came forward and said we don’t agree with the death penalty.”
One current Virginia death penalty opponent is Rachel Sutphin, who was 9 years old in 2006 when William C. Morva shot to death her father, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office Cpl. Eric Sutphin. Morva was executed in 2017.
Northam said he has several reasons for opposing capital punishment. “I’ve always felt that it consumes an enormous amount of resources really without improving safety,” he said. “I think that’s very clear.”
Another concern is that innocent people have been sentenced to death, Northam said. He pointed to the case of Earl Washington Jr., who came within nine days of execution for a 1982 rape and murder in Culpeper that DNA later proved was committed by someone else.
“And then, I don’t know if it’s the doctor in me or just my human nature,” he said of his opposition.
Northam said he believes the chances the bill will pass in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly are good. “I haven’t polled every legislator but ... we’ve made a lot of progress in the last three years, especially the last year, with criminal justice reform and I think everybody agrees we need to continue.”
One influential group opposing abolition legislation last year was the Virginia State Police Association.
Alena Yarmosky, spokeswoman for Northam, said that it is unclear when the bill will be filed but that Northam is expected to endorse the legislation during his State of the Commonwealth address on Wednesday.
Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, said Tuesday that he will carry the bill in the House and an identical bill in the Senate will be carried by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, and Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County.
“To our knowledge, there has never been a governor who has patroned abolition,” said Mullin, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Hampton.
“There have been bills in the House and Senate for at least 30 years that rarely, if ever, have gotten a hearing and certainly have not had gubernatorial backing,” Mullin said. “This is a sea change in criminal justice.”
“I have every expectation that we’re going to be able to achieve this in this session,” he said.
Last week a group of African American pastors in Virginia called for abolishing the death penalty in the upcoming General Assembly, citing racial disparities in its use. While Blacks make up 20% of Virginia’s population, they account for 46% of those executed since 1976.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 25 states, including Virginia, have the death penalty, 22 states do not, and three states have governor-imposed moratoriums.
The American Bar Association reported that as of January 2020, 33 states had either abolished the death penalty or have not executed anyone in at least a decade.