Virginia bishops approve state’s move to abolish the death penalty

Virginia_state_house_Sean_Pavone_Shutterstock.jpg Virginia State House Credit: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Virginia's two Catholic bishops welcomed the state legislature's votes to abolish the death penalty this week. 


"We welcome today's vote by the Virginia House of Delegates to abolish the death penalty, as well as the vote by the Virginia Senate to do so earlier this week," read a joint statement from Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington and Barry Knestout of Richmond on Friday; the statement was issued shortly after the House vote. 


The bill, sponsored by Del. Mike Mullin (D), passed the state House of Delegates by a vote of 57-41. Three Republicans joined all but one Democrat in voting to abolish the death penalty. 


The bishops said they offer "and affirm the utmost need for" prayerful support for the loved ones of victims of horrific crimes. They also upheld "with clarity and conviction, the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: '[T]he death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.'"


"The same paragraph of the Catechism also notes that '[T]here is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes,'" the bishops said. 


They noted "this increasing awareness at work in the many voices that joined together to advocate for this legislation, and ultimately in the votes by the Senate and House in favor of ending the death penalty in Virginia, which has executed more people than any other state."


Virginia's last execution was in 2017. There are two people currently on death row in the state, and under the legislation their death sentences would be converted to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Since 1976, 113 people have been executed in Virginia, more than any other state except Texas. 


Burbidge and Knestout quoted Pope Francis saying that the death penalty is "an offence to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person." 


They added that "we have other ways to provide punishments and protect society, without resorting to executions." 

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"We too have been consistently clear in our stand on the abolition legislation this year and on similar legislation in years past, and in our direct interventions before executions occurred in Virginia and at the federal level," said the bishops. 


The bill will now go to Gov. Ralph Northam (D) for signature. When the bill was introduced in the legislature on Jan. 13, Northam indicated that he would sign it into law.


The state Senate passed a bill repealing the death penalty on Wednesday, by a vote of 21-17. The bill passed by a party-line vote, as no Republicans voted for it and one abstained. 


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The senate bill's sponsor cited concerns that the death penalty is disproportionately used against racial minorities and persons with diminished mental capacity.