Gov. Northam to propose measure to abolish death penalty in Virginia

Richmond

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam answers a question during a COVID-19-19 briefing at the Capitol in Richmond, Va, Wednesday Nov 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY/WRIC) — Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced Wednesday he will introduce legislation aimed at abolishing the death penalty, an effort that would make Virginia the first Southern state to do so if it passes.

On Thursday, Jan. 14 at 10 a.m., prosecutors and advocates will come together for a virtual press conference to call on legislators to abolish the death penalty in Virginia.  

Three former Attorneys General and eleven Commonwealth Attorneys as well as other former prosecutors recently signed a letter to the General Assembly expressing their support for the abolition of the death penalty in the Commonwealth.  

During the press conference, prosecutors will express their concerns that justify repeal, including biased application, cost and ineffectiveness, and limited proof that the death penalty deters criminal behavior. 

“The number of elected prosecutors supporting the repeal of the death penalty is surging across the country. While the reasons cited by prosecutors are many, there is an acknowledgment that ending the death penalty is imperative in a country grappling with racism in the legal system,” said Sarah Craft, Death Penalty Program Director at Equal Justice USA

Prosecutors are also expected to address a more “cost-effective, constitutional way” to respond to crimes that carry the death penalty.

Speakers include:

  • Robert Poggenklass, Board Member, Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty 
  • Ramin Fatehi – Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney, City of Norfolk 
  • Hon. Steve Descano – Commonwealth’s Attorney Fairfax County, City of Fairfax 
  • Hon. James Hingeley – Commonwealth’s Attorney Albemarle County 

According to a statement released Wednesday, “the first execution the U.S. occurred in Virginia in 1608. Since then, almost 1400 people have been executed in Virginia – more than any other state.” 

Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, confirmed that the governor will advocate for ending the death penalty during Wednesday’s State of the Commonwealth address.

Measures to end capital punishment have already been submitted for this year’s General Assembly session, including bills from gubernatorial hopeful Del. Lee Carter (D- Manassas) and Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax).

Del. Jay Jones (D-Norfolk), an attorney who is running for attorney general, said he would be a chief co-patron for legislation filed for 2021.

“I believe deeply in my soul that the death penalty is abhorrent and must be abolished immediately,” Del. Jones said in a statement.

“The Commonwealth shouldn’t be in the business of killing its citizens, plain and simple, and it is time we meet the moment and end this despicable practice once and for all. It is no secret that this practice impacts Black citizens more than any other group, and this is not only alarming but a necessary reform to our justice system that treats every person fairly and similarly under the law.”

The current Virginia attorney general, Mark Herring, shared a statement supporting the proposal from Northam.

“It is time for Virginia to end the death penalty and I will support Governor Northam’s efforts to make it happen this year,” Herring, who is seeking a third term in office, said. “Its abolition must be part of our work to reform a flawed and imperfect criminal justice system.”

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