A symbol of a criminal's incarceration with a man imprisoned in a cell.

With the Jan. 9 gaveling in of the first Democratically controlled legislature in 26 years, groups opposed to capital punishment such as Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (VADP) are hopeful they might succeed in their longtime efforts to end the punishment in the Old Dominion.

According to the RTD news story “Group seeks abolition of death penalty in Va. as Democrats prepare to take control of legislature,” VADP says 13 family members of Virginians killed by homicide will ask the General Assembly to abolish state executions.

Should the legislature oblige, Virginia will become the 22nd state to do so. In May, New Hampshire ended the practice when its senate voted 16-8 to override Gov. Chris Sununu’s veto of a bill passed by the state’s legislature. And in March, California Gov. Gavin Newsom placed a moratorium on executions in that state, although the decision to officially repeal California’s death penalty can only be made by the state’s voters — a choice they rejected three years ago.

According to a 2018 poll by the Pew Research Center, public support nationwide for state executions has increased. As of 2018, 54% of Americans approved of capital punishment while 39% were opposed. (That approval rate rose from a low of 49% support in 2016.)

Since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume in 1976, Virginia has executed 113 people, making the state second only to Texas, with 568 executions. The last person to be executed in the commonwealth was William Morva in July 2017, who was convicted of killing two people. Today, just three others remain on Virginia’s death row.

Michael Stone, executive director of VADP, told the RTD, “We’ve been planning for a long, long time to target 2020 for a variety of reasons. I think we’ve got enough conservative support that we can really have a serious debate, so, we’ll see where it goes.”

We will be watching as well. Previous efforts to end capital punishment in the legislature have failed. And it’s notable that while most Americans support the measure, the use of the death penalty continues to decline significantly across the country. In at least 10 states, capital punishment has been all but abandoned, although laws allowing it remain on the books.

The death penalty is grim and the severest form of justice possible. However, in rare instances, some crimes are so extraordinarily heinous that states should be able to execute those capable of such gross evil. While it is our fervent hope that capital punishment need never be used again in Virginia, we believe the penalty should remain an option.

— Robin Beres

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