Richmond, Va., Feb 4, 2021 / 20:11 pm
The abolition of the death penalty has advanced in Virginia, with the State Senate’s passage of a bill backed by the Virginia Catholic Conference.
The death penalty repeal bill passed the Senate by a 21-17 vote Feb. 3. All Democrats voted in favor of the bill, while no Republicans did. One Republican abstained.
“Only a few years ago, the Virginia Catholic Conference and partnering advocates were fighting against proposals to expand capital punishment. Many of you took action on those alerts,” the Catholic conference said Jan. 13. “Now, we are excited to be moving in the opposite direction, with bipartisan support growing for ending Virginia’s death penalty.”
The bill, S.B. 1165, was sponsored by Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell. He cited concerns that racial minorities and people with diminished mental capacity are disproportionately sentenced to death. There are estimates that 1 in 10 people sentenced to death in the U.S. had been wrongly convicted.
“I cannot think of anything that’s more awful, unspeakable and wrong for a government to do than to use its power to execute somebody who didn’t commit the crime they’re accused of,” Surovell told the Washington Post.
The bill has the support of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and is expected to pass the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.
Republican State Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. had co-sponsored the bill, but abstained. He had proposed an unsuccessful amendment to require life without parole for capital offenses, the Washington Post reports. Three Senate Republicans said they would have supported the bill with such an amendment.
The Virginia Catholic Conference in a Jan. 29 update had asked voters to email their senator to ask him or her to support the bill.
“Virginia has other ways to provide punishment and protect society, without resorting to executions. The application of the death penalty is racially and economically biased and is often arbitrary based on location,” said the conference’s sample letter for voters.
“It can also be irreversibly wrong,” the letter continued. “Since 1989, there have been 18 people exonerated in Virginia after wrongful murder convictions, including one from death row, Earl Washington. Since 1976, 173 people on death row in the U.S. have been exonerated.”
“Even after committing a very serious and terrible crime… a person’s dignity is not lost,” the letter concluded.
The Virginia Catholic Conference cited Pope Francis and his recent predecessors’ teachings against the death penalty.
Virginia has two people on death row. It has executed 113 people since the 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty, more than any state but Texas. If the bill becomes law Virginia would become the first state in the U.S. South to abolish the death penalty.
Republican Sen. Mark Obenshain, a death penalty backer, cited the case of Ricky Gray. He was convicted of the 2006 torture and killing of a family in Richmond during a home burglary. He was executed in 2017.
“These are savage crimes,” he said, according to the Washington Post. “These are the worst of the worst. . . . I believe in the rare application of capital punishment.”
In Obenshain’s view, the unfair targeting of minorities for capital punishment was a historic, not contemporary, phenomenon.
“I do not believe this bill is an appropriate response to the misapplication of capital punishment in decades and centuries past,” he said. “I believe in our American system of justice. I believe we are better than we have ever been.”
Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville the chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ doctrine committee, has said the Church’s opposition to the death penalty is a matter of fighting the “throwaway culture” which “kills people to solve problems.”
“And we do that from the unborn all the way to the elderly. We let people die—or we kill people, in the death penalty’s case—to solve problems. And the Church is simply saying ‘Enough blood. Stop’,” Flores said in January 2021, speaking to the Georgetown University-hosted online panel “Killing in Our Name: Federal Executions and Pro-Life Witness.”
In the case of condemned criminals, he encouraged people to “look at the person” and not reduce him or her to “just a statistic.”
Fr. Thomas Petri, O.P., a moral theologian at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., told CNA he thinks a recent change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church calling capital punishment “inadmissible” “further absolutizes the pastoral conclusion made by John Paul II.”
“Nothing in the new wording of paragraph 2267 suggests the death penalty is intrinsically evil. Indeed, nothing could suggest that because it would contradict the firm teaching of the Church,” Fr. Petri continued.
Although Virginia legislators appear set to abolish the death penalty, they have worked to expand legal and financial support for abortion.
There were 17,210 abortions performed in Virginia in 2017, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Virginia’s Catholic bishops lamented the recent passage of a bill to provide taxpayer-funded abortion for any reason in health insurance plans on Virginia’s taxpayer-funded health exchange.
In 2020 the state legislature passed an abortion bill that allowed physicians assistants and nurse practitioners to perform abortions. It also struck down existing requirements that women be informed about the abortion procedure and receive ultrasounds before having an abortion. In addition, it deregulated safety standards at abortion clinics.
Northam signed the bill into law on April 11, Good Friday, an act which the state’s bishops called “a particular affront to all who profess the Gospel of life.”