With Democrats soon to be in control of the state legislature, the group Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty is seeking an end to the death penalty in Virginia.
The group announced Monday that 13 Virginians who have lost a family member to homicide are asking the General Assembly to make Virginia the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty.
One of them will be speaking at a news conference in Richmond on Thursday.
Michael Stone, executive director of the group, said Monday, “To be honest, we have been targeting 2020 for years as the time we would kick off an abolition campaign. From our point of view, the election just adds momentum to the possibility of us being the first Southern state to end the death penalty.”
“We’ve been planning for a long, long time to target 2020 for a variety of reasons,” Stone said. “I think we’ve got enough conservative support that we can really have a serious debate, so we’ll see where it goes.”
Earlier this year, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ralph Northam told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “If the General Assembly passed legislation to replace the death penalty with life without parole, the governor would absolutely sign it.”
She added that although Northam is personally opposed to the death penalty, he has pledged to uphold Virginia’s laws, including the death penalty, as did former Democratic Govs. Mark Warner, Tim Kaine and Terry McAuliffe.
Virginia has executed 113 people since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume in 1976, a toll second only to Texas with 568 over the same period. There are now just three inmates on Virginia’s death row.
The VADP’s position is that there are just two Virginia death row inmates because a federal appeals court ruled last year that the death sentence imposed in Fairfax County on Mark Lawlor in a 2008 murder and rape was flawed and his case is in limbo, Stone said.
The VADP said Rachel Sutphin, of Christiansburg, will speak at the news conference in Richmond on Thursday. Her father, Eric E. Sutphin, a corporal with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, was murdered in Blacksburg in 2006.
His killer, William Morva, was executed in 2017, the most recent execution carried out by the state.
Sutphin will speak in favor of replacing Virginia’s death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole, the VADP said.
“These citizens have come to understand that, far from bringing ‘closure’ to their grief, the death penalty brings only more trauma to their lives, as well as being an inefficient and ineffective means of justice,” the group said in a news release.
A poll last year by the Pew Research Center found that 54% of Americans favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, and 39% are opposed. Nevertheless, death sentences and executions have been trending downward for years.
Efforts to end capital punishment in Virginia’s legislature have failed in previous years.