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Virginia On Track To Be 1st Southern State To Abolish Death Penalty

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Virginia lawmakers have voted to abolish the death penalty there. It's the first Southern state to do so. Democratic Governor Ralph Northam is expected to sign the bill into law soon. Whittney Evans of member station VPM in Richmond reports.

WHITTNEY EVANS, BYLINE: Opponents in Virginia say the death penalty is expensive and flawed because of the chance of executing an innocent person. It's also disproportionately applied to Black defendants. Although Black residents make up about 20% of the state's population, almost half of those executed are Black. Thomas Porter is one of two people, both Black men, on Virginia's death row. He was convicted of murdering Norfolk police officer Stanley Reaves in 2005.

GAYLE AYALA: He realizes that he still has, quote, "the other death penalty," which is to die in prison.

EVANS: But Porter's close friend Gayle Ayala says he's eager to make the best of it.

AYALA: He really looks forward to being able to mentor younger guys and just to do anything he can with his life to honor the police officer that died.

EVANS: On the Virginia House floor earlier this month, Jay Jones, who is a Black state lawmaker, recalled a conversation he had with his mother when he was a child. A criminal defense attorney, she was defending a man on death row.

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JAY JONES: And she said, Jay, I'm trying to keep a man from getting lynched by the state. The death penalty is the direct descendant of lynching. It is state-sponsored racism.

EVANS: Michael Stone is executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. He says it was a racial reckoning that brought Virginia to this moment, going all the way back to the 2019 controversy involving Governor Ralph Northam and an old racist yearbook photo.

MICHAEL STONE: I think the governor's blackface scandal certainly predisposed him to being far more sensitive about racial justice issues.

EVANS: And then came the death of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis last year.

STONE: The Black Lives Matter protests turbocharged the move toward criminal justice reform in general and death penalty abolition in particular.

EVANS: What has long been an issue for Democrats has gained support in recent years from Republicans, prosecutors and even victims' family members. Rachel Sutphin is a vocal opponent of the death penalty and objected to the 2017 execution of her father's killer. William Morva, who was the last person to be executed in Virginia, fatally shot her father, Eric Sutphin, a police officer, in 2006. She objected to Morva's execution in part because he was diagnosed with a serious mental illness.

RACHEL SUTPHIN: There are many of us, and we have continually spoken out - this is not what we want.

EVANS: But it's important for her, she says, to honor the families who disagree with her.

SUTPHIN: We are not speaking against them, but against this issue that we see as wrong in our society.

EVANS: Three Republicans joined Democrats in voting for this measure, but the vast majority opposed the bill. Republican House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert criticized Democrats' emotional pleas for ending the death penalty. He asked them to have the same concern for victims.

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TODD GILBERT: Some measure - no matter how small - of angst, of regret, of concern, not for cold-blooded murderers but for people who've been robbed, who've been stolen from, whose homes have been broken into, whose loved ones have been murdered.

EVANS: Gilbert says Virginians should be worried about the direction the state is going on criminal justice. According to a recent poll, the majority of people in Virginia, though, say they support the repeal.

For NPR News, I'm Whittney Evans in Richmond.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAN MOUNTAIN'S "NO MAN NEEDS NOTHING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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