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'It is the moral thing to do': Virginia's death penalty abolished in historic signing
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'It is the moral thing to do': Virginia's death penalty abolished in historic signing

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Gov. Ralph Northam signs the death penalty abolition bill at Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Va.

JARRATT — Four centuries of capital punishment in Virginia ended Wednesday outside the Greensville Correctional Center, the site of more than 100 of the state’s most recent executions.

Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation abolishing the death penalty under a tent opposite the entrance to the sprawling prison. L Unit, home of the execution chamber where electrocutions and lethal injections were conducted, was hundreds of yards away and could not be seen from the event.

Northam was given a brief tour of the death house by corrections officials earlier Wednesday that made an impression.

“I don’t know how else to describe it, but only to say that it is a powerful thing, to stand in the room where people have been put to death. I know that experience will stay with me for the rest of my life and it reinforced me that signing this new law is the right thing to do. It is the moral thing to do,” Northam said.

“The death penalty is fundamentally flawed,” he said. “We know that the system doesn’t always get it right.”

He cited the case of Earl Washington Jr., who came within nine days of execution in 1985 for a rape and murder that DNA later proved he did not commit.

“We can’t give out the ultimate punishment without being 100% sure that we’re right and we can’t sentence people to that ultimate punishment knowing that the system doesn’t work the same for everyone,” Northam said. He said the use of capital punishment in Virginia has historically been disproportionately applied to Blacks.

The death penalty needs to be fair and accurate, he said. “We all know that the death penalty cannot meet those criteria,” he said. “That is why it is time in the commonwealth of Virginia to end the death penalty.”

Since Colonial times, more executions have been carried out in Virginia than anywhere else in the country, and the state has had the second-most executions in modern times. It now joins 22 other states without a death penalty and is the first in the South to abandon the ultimate sanction.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said that including three states where governors have imposed moratoriums, a majority of states now either will not authorize or carry out death sentences.

“No state that has relied so heavily on capital punishment has ever before repealed its death penalty,” Dunham said of Virginia.

The legislation, backed by Northam and sponsored by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, and Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, changes the 15 types of capital murder punishable by death or life in prison without parole, to aggravated murders punishable by life.

Abolition and moratorium bills had been introduced in the General Assembly for decades without success. This year, with Democrats now in control of the House, Senate and governor’s office, the effort succeeded largely along party lines.

The last two men on Virginia’s death row, Thomas Alexander Porter, 45, and Anthony B. Juniper, 49, sentenced to death in Norfolk, will now serve life without parole.

Reached by telephone Wednesday, Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, who strongly opposed the abolition bill, said: “There are two men currently on death row. One [Porter] murdered a police officer, the other murdered four people, including two children who he executed.”

“I would wish the governor would spend some time, as he makes his victory lap, at the cemeteries where these victims are buried,” Bell said.

History of executions

Only once before, starting in 1972 when the U.S. Supreme Court barred executions across the country, has Virginia been without a death penalty law. The justices allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976 and since then Virginia, with 113 executions, ranked second only to Texas, with 570.

Roughly one dozen of Virginia’s first executions in modern times were conducted at the former Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond. The rest, more than 100, were conducted at Greensville starting in 1991. The prison is located off Interstate 95 just north of Emporia.

The tent under which the legislation was signed Wednesday was erected in the same parking lot where satellite television trucks and scores of reporters gathered for word from corrections officials about some of the state’s most high-profile executions.

Beginning in 1995, Virginia inmates could choose between death by lethal injection or the electric chair. Most opted for injection, which became increasingly difficult to perform for Virginia and other states as the requisite chemicals grew difficult to obtain.

Capital murder has been the only crime warranting the death penalty since 1977. But in the past, other crimes qualified and a variety of other execution means were employed in Virginia.

The first execution in what became the United States happened in Jamestown in 1608. In 1611 the “Lawes Divine, Morall, and Martial” were issued in the Virginia colony under which false testimony, criticizing authorities, blasphemy or even stealing produce could be punished by death.

Since then nearly 1,400 people have been executed. The youngest known person was 12; the oldest 83. Two were burned to death, at least two shot, more than 1,000 hanged, hundreds electrocuted and dozens injected with chemicals, according to records maintained by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Historically, crimes warranting death included piracy, murder, attempted murder, rape, attempted rape, horse theft, burglary, arson, espionage, sodomy, revolt, robbery, counterfeiting and poisoning.

The 113 people executed in Virginia since 1976 murdered more than 170 men, women and children with weapons including firearms, ropes, knives, hammers and a boulder. At least one of those executed, Alfredo Prieto, a serial killer, was sentenced to death in two states: Virginia and California.

The last man executed by the state was William Morva, in 2017, who murdered Eric Sutphin, a deputy sheriff, and Derrick McFarland, a hospital security guard, in 2006 in Blacksburg.

Sutphin’s daughter, Rachel Sutphin, opposes the death penalty and has spoken publicly against it in recent years.

Reached by telephone recently, Henry Heller, a Charlottesville-area carpenter who first led Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said, “I thought maybe abolition was possible, in my elder years, in my lifetime.”

“But it happened sooner than that and I think the world is surprised,” he said. Created in 1991, the group long campaigned against the death penalty and its members protested at virtually every execution in the past 30 years.

Jayne Barnard, vice president of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, spoke Wednesday and credited the work of her organization and many others — including religious leaders and groups and the surviving loved ones of murder victims, such as Rachel Sutphin — for their work to end capital punishment in the state.

The group began with the help of the late Marie Deans, an anti-capital punishment activist and advocate for death row prisoners who helped save the life of Washington in 1985.

Washington was later cleared and the real killer implicated by DNA testing. He was released from Greensville in 2001 and fully exonerated in 2007.

Recent decline

With no execution in four years, none pending and no new death sentences in a decade, capital punishment had virtually ground to a halt in Virginia.

The decline was due in part to fewer murders, increasing legal costs, the creation of true life sentences in 1995 as an alternative to death, and a changing public sentiment and electorate.

A critical reason, says one expert, was the establishment in 2004 of Virginia capital defenders offices that provided experts to aid defense lawyers in the capital murder trials of indigent defendants.

It was in 2005 — not 1995, when parole for new crimes ended — that the number of death sentences in Virginia began dropping precipitously, said Brandon Garrett, author of “End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice,” published in 2017.

“We can thank the governor and the lawmakers’ integrity and conviction that death penalty abolition’s time has come. But we can also thank the lawyers who, in trial after trial, convinced jurors that even people convicted of capital murder did not deserve the ultimate punishment,” Garrett said.

Formerly a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and now at Duke University, Garrett said, “The Virginia story is a microcosm of what we are seeing nationally. Death sentences have hovered at historic lows in the past few years.”

“American death sentencing continues to disappear. I suspect that Virginia’s historic repeal will be a sign of things to come from other formerly steadfast death penalty states,” Garrett said.

Surovell, who sponsored the abolition bill in the Senate, told those attending the signing ceremony Wednesday that in creating the capital defenders services, “we finally provided people with the defense they deserve.”

David J. Johnson, executive director of Virginia Indigent Defense Commission, said, “The four regional capital [defenders] offices just transformed the landscape in Virginia.”

“One of the capital defenders told me, ‘We now give a poor person in Virginia the same type of defense a rich person gets — and rich people do not get the death penalty in this country, which is why it needed to go away,’ ” Johnson said.

The regional offices each had four lawyers, an investigator, two mitigation specialists and an administrative assistant.

“These folks worked themselves out of a job. That’s the ultimate irony,” he said. On the other hand, Johnson said, “It was their ultimate goal.”

One of the capital defenders, Steven Milani of Roanoke, had helped defend 50 capital murder cases in Southwest Virginia since 2004 — none of which resulted in a death sentence.

Reached by telephone on Monday, Milani said, “I’m looking for work right now.”

State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, the vice chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and a candidate for governor, said in a statement: “This is a historic moment for criminal justice reform in Virginia as we finally end a barbaric system that disproportionately punished Black and Brown people.”

Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said, “It took many decades of hard work for us to get here.”

“While the wheels of justice often turn slowly, we are grateful to be closing the chapter on this racist and inhumane practice,” Gastañaga said.

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