Virginia Dems Prepare to End Death Penalty

Gov. Ralph Northam (D., Va.) / Getty Images
January 28, 2021

Virginia Democrats' plan to abolish the state's death penalty will soon get a full hearing in the state Senate, a process likely to end with the Old Dominion state becoming the first in the south to end capital punishment.

Senate Bill 1165, which would end executions and convert Virginia's outstanding death sentences to life without parole, advanced through two committees over the objections of a minority of Republicans before making it to the Senate floor on Wednesday. It will now face a full vote in the state's upper chamber, but Democratic control of both houses and of the governor's mansion indicate an eventual passage is likely.

Repeal would make Virginia the fifth state to end capital punishment by law or moratorium in the past five years, a major about-face for a state that has been responsible for more executions than any state but Texas in the modern era. It would also be a major win for Governor Ralph Northam's aggressive criminal justice agenda, which also includes felon enfranchisement and the legalization of marijuana statewide.

The bill has prompted heated debate, both in the Senate and across Virginia. During discussion in the Senate Finance and Appropriations committee, senators contended that the bill would save the state millions a year in capital defense expenditures. Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment (R.), who was one of four votes against the bill, was unconvinced.

"In trying to be objective about this otherwise unworthy bill, I would say I think it’s more of a policy discussion than a fiscal discussion," he said during the hearing.

Virginians have made their voices heard on both sides of the issue. In a letter sent to state legislators Wednesday, 22 family members of murder victims called on the state's legislators to sign the bill, calling the death penalty "inefficient, ineffective, and traumatic for many families like ours." Among their number was Delegate Chris Hurst, whose fiancée was killed by a disgruntled former coworker during a live television interview in 2015.

But other family members oppose the change. Michelle Dermyer, whose husband, state trooper Chad Phillip Dermyer, was murdered in 2016, told senators that her husband's killer's life without parole sentence turned into just 36 years.

"The death penalty ensures the killer will never kill someone else again, including other prisoners, guards and persons outside of prison in cases of escape or early release," Dermyer said.

The likely eventual passage of S.B. 1165 will be part of a sweeping criminal justice agenda meant to be carried out in Northam's final year in office. That agenda would build on a slate of changes passed in December during a special session, largely in response to the summer's protests following the death of George Floyd. Goals for the new session include repealing mandatory minimum sentences, ending the use of private prisons, and repealing felony penalties for drug possession.

Such efforts are likely to continue if Virginians return a Democrat to the governor's mansion in the upcoming election. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, angling for a promotion, has endorsed the death penalty repeal bill, as has leading competitor and former governor Terry McAuliffe, who oversaw the restoration of voting rights to some 200,000 felons in his last days in office.